Published Mar 18, 2016 at 12:01AM
When Eric Bramwell returned from Iraq in 2007, 55 soldiers in his Army unit — including his best friend — had been killed.
He felt lost.
Traumatized, the 33-year-old Gresham native continued to scan for enemy combatants in his civilian surroundings.
He eventually realized he needed the company of fellow veterans and wide open space to feel better.
He’s found comfort on the Central Oregon Veterans Ranch, also known as COVR. The 19-acre parcel of irrigated land halfway between Redmond and Bend is staffed by 20 volunteers — the majority veterans — who tend the grounds. Several greenhouses, a large barn and a pasture for the herd of endangered Navajo-Churro sheep are among the amenities.
By this summer, an adult foster home large enough to accommodate four end-of-life veterans is expected to open.
“If you build it, they will come,” said ranch founder Alison Perry, in a nod to the movie “Field of Dreams.” And come, they have.
Perry came up with the concept for the Central Oregon Veterans Ranch when she worked as a counselor for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs in Portland and Bend. Between her work and having veterans in her family and a brother serving as a medical evacuation helicopter pilot, her decision to start the ranch seemed natural.
Bramwell, for one, is grateful. He’s the newest COVR volunteer. Last week, he made the first of what he anticipates will be a regular three-hour commute from Gresham.
“You feel like you can almost breathe out there,” said Bramwell, whose wartime responsibilities involved manning a 60 mm mortar on raids and special operations. “(On the ranch), you’re not looking at every single window for snipers; you don’t have all the distractions that you have in the city.”
Bramwell suffers debilitating migraines, the symptom of a brain injury he sustained in a blast. He’s about to have his fourth surgery on his left knee to repair his ACL. Although the VA has deemed him 100 percent disabled, Bramwell is nonetheless a member of The Mission Continues, a nonprofit that provides veterans with a $1,000 stipend for contributing 90 hours per month in charity work.
Bramwell had been volunteering at a Portland-area nonprofit helping physically handicapped children learn to ride horses when his excruciating headaches began to interfere with his rigid schedule.
His program coordinator told him about COVR. He visited Perry and staff at the ranch and liked what he saw.
“What’s great is that this lets me serve veterans,” he said, noticeably upbeat. He described meeting another veteran infantryman his age who was deployed at the same time in Iraq; such encounters are rare.
At COVR, Bramwell will help organize an outreach initiative to find other like-minded veterans — particularly in his northwest corner of the state — who would benefit from visiting the ranch.
“I want to let them know there are others who feel like they do,” he said. Having a sense of community helps veterans, and so does working with animals. “It’s a place to take a break and get away.”
Raising a ranch
The ranch is in a good location to help veterans. According to the 2014 U.S. Census, there are 20,159 veterans in Deschutes, Jefferson and Crook counties. Deschutes County contains the seventh-largest veteran population in the state. Veterans make up about 11 percent of the population in the tri-county area.
Since COVR’s 2013 inception, it has received more than $257,500 in funding from a variety of sources, such as Meyer Memorial Trust, Maybelle Clark MacDonald Fund and Northwest Farm Credit Services. Since COVR launched a First 100 campaign on Veterans Day last year, $25,000 has flooded in; they’re hoping to reach $100,000 in donations by Memorial Day. Additional resources will offset the costs of continual renovation and allow COVR to pay four adult foster home caregivers.
Deborah Grassman, a national expert in veteran care who co-founded the nonprofit Opus Peace, is helping Perry develop COVR’s end-of-life program, a term used for programs that serve people with less than a year to live.
While Perry wants COVR to serve veterans of all life stages as a support hub whose spokes connect to other services and organizations, she said her vision began as something more rugged. In her work with end-of-life veterans, Perry, 43, said they often spoke of wanting to confront death away from loved ones, and in solitude.
Cabins in the woods
Perry sat on the deck of the future adult foster home to take a breather alongside Joe Florio, a Vietnam veteran. The Three Sisters mountains served as backdrop for the plains, and unseen birds of prey screeched overhead. Florio, 67, is overseeing the renovation of the foster home, which was recently fitted with an ADA-compliant wheelchair ramp.
“Originally I wanted to get 1,000 acres in the woods with cabins so veterans could go off and die alone with dignity, like the Native Americans,” Perry said. By having the foster home on the ranch, Perry now hopes to stoke mutually beneficial relationships between the younger veterans and the elderly, who have plenty of knowledge to impart.
Perry also wants the ranch to be a nice place to work and relax and considers agriculture a “vehicle for creating community, purpose, healing and learning.”
Perry explained there are two schools of thought regarding veteran care: one of healing and one of curing.
“The VA tells people they’re broken, they can’t work, they need to be medicated and institutionalized” to fix their symptoms, Perry said of the curing notion. She prefers the healing model, in which a veteran learns to acknowledge and live with the symptoms of post-traumatic stress. When talking about PTSD, Perry omits the “d” because she does not consider the response a disorder. “It’s a normal reaction to abnormal activity,” she said. Of his wartime experiences, Florio said it changed him. “My ‘new normal’ is not your normal,” he said.
The Oregon State University Extension Service offers on-site seminars on animal care. Local organizations, particularly the Rotary Club of Redmond, are pitching in to build a $20,000 walk-in greenhouse.
Ranch manager Wray Harris, an Iraq War veteran living in the foster home until renovations are complete, told Perry that while working with plants and animals, he experienced a sense of awe he hadn’t known for years.
Bramwell said in addition to outreach efforts, he also wants to help organize a weekly volunteer chore day at the ranch.
Veterans contribute to COVR according to their strengths. For Kara Kelly, that means overseeing the health care operations. A 16-year nurse specializing in psychiatric health, Kelly served 13 years in the military — eight of those in active combat. As a combat flight nurse in Iraq, Kelly oversaw a team that executed 24 airlifts that evacuated 124 injured soldiers.
After returning stateside, Kelly felt broken and isolated. She struggled with alcohol, which afforded her temporary relief from constant anxiety and fear, the result of PTSD.
Working to stay sober, Kelly moved to Bend 2½ years ago. She volunteered at Central Oregon Veterans Outreach, where she met Perry. Kelly was heartened by Perry’s vision for COVR, which would fill a gap left by the VA.
“(The VA is) doing the best they can with a huge demand, but that doesn’t meet the needs of all veterans,” Kelly said, noting that she personally has had a “great experience” with the VA. “It can be very intimidating to many vets who are already fearful.”
Kelly wanted to be involved with COVR because she knows how important it is for vets to have a safe place to connect and to get well.
“There is an unspoken understanding of military culture, what it’s like to live in a war zone. The camaraderie can be amazing,” Kelly said. “You can feel lost without it.”
Bramwell echoed the sentiment: “We didn’t leave our brothers behind overseas; why should we leave them behind over here?”
— Reporter: 541-617-7816, firstname.lastname@example.org