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Veterans find healing through nature at Soldiers Freedom Outdoors

Florida residents come from all over the state to metal detect at Camp Freedom in hopes of finding something good. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)
Florida residents come from all over the state to metal detect at Camp Freedom in hopes of finding something good. (Savannah Rude/WUFT News)

Jason Bucy lives in Inverness and served in the US Army from 1997 to 2004. As with many veterans returning to the United States, he has wounds from war. By connecting with other veterans at Camp Freedom in Melrose, he’s been able to let his guard down while fishing, horseback riding, hunting and blacksmithing.

“You show up on Friday, and nobody wants to talk, and they’re kind of standoffish,” Bucy said. “By about dinner time, people started asking about the hats and the units that we were deployed to, and where we were in the world, and then by the time we’re sitting around the campfire, we’re telling war stories.”

Soldiers Freedom Outdoors owns and runs Camp Freedom, offering a safe haven for veterans to heal in the outdoors. It’s a nonprofit that aims to provide nature therapy to veterans from all walks of life by hosting no-cost retreats.

Dan DiMarco, the chairman and founder of the organization, said every veteran who comes to a retreat gets something different from the variety of outdoor activities they offer.

“Some people may love the horses, and that may be what helps them; some people may like fishing,” DiMarco said. “Some people just might like the fact that you’re out in the country, kind of being at grandma and grandpa’s farm; it’s kind of that atmosphere, so it’s very relaxed.”

JD Datka, a Middleburg resident who served in the US Navy from 2000 to 2023, has done two Soldiers Freedom Outdoors retreats. He said spending time outdoors during the retreats allowed him to clear his mind and refocus.

“Sitting out on the dock and casting a line in the water and just watching the sunset over the lake or walking through the woods is extremely therapeutic for me,” Datka said. “It helps me get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and helps me just refocus on who I am and why I’m here.”

Richard Nalli, a Gainesville resident who served in the US Coast Guard from 1972 to 1981, said the activities allow veterans, especially those with PTSD, to take back some freedom.

“It just takes the edge off of all your daily activities and the things you have to do or should do or are putting off doing,” Nalli said. “It’s a nice getaway, and just let go of everything that’s on your mind; it’s very peaceful.”

Mark Holtrop, a Green Coast Springs resident whose friends call him Navy Mark, served in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013 before he was medically discharged. Holtrop said while he is hoping to find time to make a retreat soon, he enjoys coming to Camp Freedom for the metal-detecting events.

“You know, I would say for me, I’m not doing it to find gold; I am doing it for the camaraderie. They’re all good people here, and it takes your mind off of a lot of stuff,” Holtrop said. “You think it’s only a metal detector. How can it help you? But it does; it gets you out here and talking to other veterans.”

Activities like metal-detecting help veterans focus their minds somewhere else, said Bucy, whose personal favorite is the blacksmith program at Camp Freedom.

“All you’re doing is thinking about making this knife, and when you’re done, you have this beautiful product,” Bucy said. “That’s all you thought about for two days was making this product. So it gets you out of your head and gets you thinking about something else.”

While veterans who attend the retreats find great healing through the activities offered, it is being around other veterans with shared experiences that help many veterans the most, DiMarco said.

“It’s veterans helping veterans,” DiMarco said. “If you’re sitting at the table and having breakfast and you’ve got seven veterans, and one guy is struggling with something and the other guy’s already been through that, they can help each other and vice versa.”

Datka said he found great comfort in being able to talk freely in military jargon.

“We’re able to link up and start sharing stories, and that’s something that, especially after retiring from the Navy, was kind of hard for me because when talking with a general civilian population, I literally have to rewire my brain,” Datka said. “But when I come here, it lets me kind of turn that translation off in my brain and allows me to talk the way I talked the last 23 years.”

Bucy, who suffers from PTSD, said his biggest takeaway from the retreat was being able to converse with his fellow veterans about things only they would understand.

“Some of the things that we’ve seen and some of the things that we’ve done, you don’t just get over things,” Bucy said. “You learn how to cope with it. You learn how to deal with it. You learn how to talk about it.”

DiMarco noted that 85% to 90% of veterans who have come on a Soldiers Freedom Outdoors retreat have seen a positive impact in their lives.

“Sometimes it’s just enough to know that somebody’s doing this and they care about you,” DiMarco said. “So, if something gets bad or you’re struggling, you have a place to go.”

Bucy said he knows he can always count on his fellow veterans he has met through the organization and that they can always count on him.

“If I need something emotionally and I’m struggling with my day-to-day life, I could pick up a phone and say, ‘Hey dude, I need some help,’ and then we can talk for hours,” Bucy said. “I’ve answered my phone at two o’clock in the morning when guys need help.”

Datka said many veterans are misunderstood and that having community support is very important, especially for veterans with PTSD.

“The gross majority of everybody in the military comes from different walks of life; that’s why it’s absolutely beautiful,” Datka said. “However, we all share that similar bond and that same mindset, so if the community understands what’s going on with us and what we’ve been through.”

Holtrop believes there isn’t necessarily a need for more services like Soldiers Freedom Outdoors for veterans but there is a need for more veterans to know about it.

“I think as the time goes on more people know about this, which is good because it brings more money into it,” Holtrop said. “You know I don’t have a lot of money at the end of the month, but I don’t miss a meal, so anything I can do for them, I do.”

DiMarco said the most challenging thing he has encountered since founding the organization in 2011 is fundraising while trying to keep Soldiers Freedom Outdoors from being commercialized.
“Raising money is probably the biggest challenge and keeping money in here to take care of our veterans,” DiMarco said. “You know there are hundreds of charities, and getting the word out there about what you do, I guess that’s the biggest thing.”

Bucy said the tears are what he didn’t anticipate when coming to a retreat for the first time.

“We’ve got these guys that were SF and Seals and Rangers that come out here and absolutely open up and be very vulnerable around a bunch of guys around a campfire,” Bucy said.

Datka believes any veteran who is hesitant about doing a Soldiers Freedom Outdoors retreat or something similar should just do it and forget about any reservations they might have.

“There’s nothing to lose at all; everything is completely covered here,” Datka said. “All you’ve got to do is bring the clothes on your back and your willingness to participate.”

Savannah is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing