What had started as one Hawthorne man’s dream to give back to America’s veterans has finally started to come together as the reality he hoped for.
A safe haven lies nestled in Bradford County, where the American flag waves, and the only worry in the world is whether or not one wants to hunt, fish or both.
Camp Freedom is a home dedicated to providing veterans with a weekend of relaxation and camaraderie in nature. It is part of the local non-profit organization Soldiers Freedom Outdoors.
“When they come out here, it’s their weekend,” said Dan DiMarco, the man behind the organization. DiMarco now runs Soldiers Freedom Outdoors and Camp Freedom with a group of dedicated volunteers. “Nature really helps you de-stress.”
Camp Freedom rests on a sprawling 350-acre ranch, complete with its own lake, cattle, trails and more. The three-bedroom house is adorned with outdoor, American and military memorabilia.
Up to nine veterans can attend Camp Freedom each weekend that a retreat is offered, which is about once a month. While there, the men and women can hunt, fish, horseback ride and enjoy each other’s company. There is no set agenda, something former camper and veteran Scotty Upton said he appreciated.
“You’re there to relieve your stress how you want to,” Upton said. “I felt that way as soon as we got there.”
Upton retired from the U.S. Army in 2004, where he served for 22 years in Iraq. He said in the 10 years since he has been retired, this was the first opportunity of its kind afforded to him.
One of the best things about Camp Freedom, Upton said, was the ability to talk to individuals who have similar experiences.
“You can get a lot of stuff off of your chest,” Upton said. “You’re helping people at the same time you’re helping yourself. It’s a really emotional, moving experience.”
Prior to his work with Soldiers Freedom Outdoors, DiMarco worked in the RV industry for about 15 years. When the recession hit, DiMarco said he started thinking about what it was he was doing with his life, and five years ago started his organization to give back to America’s veterans.
When the organization first began five years ago, DiMarco said he ran it out of RVs on his home property, and he and the veterans would take different trips throughout the Southeast. He said he has had the ranch property and Camp Freedom for almost a year.
DiMarco was in the National Guard; however, his time was cut short following a horse injury.
“If I couldn’t go [overseas] and be a part of it, then I needed to be here and be a part of it,” DiMarco said. “So, when they come home, that’s what we’re here for: To help them get through whatever they need.”
Bob Nelson served in the Air Force during Vietnam, and his time overseas resulted in the loss of a leg and his suffering from Agent Orange. He said he became involved with Soldiers Freedom Outdoors four years ago through DiMarco’s hunting trips.
Nelson said following the war, he had lost the ability to do some of things he had loved the most, such as hunting. DiMarco gave him a chance to get it back.
DiMarco had to provide certain physical services, such as transportation, to make sure Nelson was able to fully participate, Nelson said.
“Whatever it takes, he does,” Nelson said of DiMarco. “Dan has done more stuff than I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of stuff.”
DiMarco said some of the veterans just appreciate the recognition. At the culmination of the weekend, DiMarco presents his visitors with plaques and thanks them for their service.
“War is hell. It’s not pretty, and a lot of people take our freedom for granted and forget what these guys go through to make sure it’s not coming here,” DiMarco said. “Anything we can do to let them know they are loved and appreciated, it goes a long way.”
According to a study done by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, veterans, whether deployed or not, exhibit significantly higher suicide risks than the general U.S. population.
“The more [veterans] we can get to, the less are dying,” DiMarco said. “We can’t save them all, but we can put a good dent in it.”
A weekend at Camp Freedom averages about $300 per veteran, with the costs covered by DiMarco and his team. DiMarco said he is hoping to expand Camp Freedom by adding a more intensive PTSD program, creating a program for military children, filling the camp every weekend and expanding to the Northeast and Midwest.
To donate to Soldiers Freedom Outdoors, click here.