Catholic Herald Staff
“Help to heal” is the mission at Camp American Legion, a Northwoods haven for Wisconsin’s injured veterans.
The 90-bed, 21-cabin facility is on Big Carr Lake in Lake Tomahawk, about 17 miles north of Rhinelander. With all the amenities of a traditional campground — a health and wellness center, library, dining lodge with restaurant-quality cuisine, craft shop and boats — the camp also includes a chapel for ecumenical services, a “battle buddies” culture and weekly visits from a veteran who can talk with the wounded.
Camp director Kevin Moshea, a member of Holy Family Parish, Woodruff and an Air Force veteran, lived and worked in Milwaukee before taking the job in Lake Tomahawk. He’s been vacationing in the area since childhood.
“We are not a vacation place,” Moshea said of the camp, which is owned and funded by the American Legion of Wisconsin. “We are a healing place.”
If the numbers are any indication, the need for healing is growing. In 2010, Camp American Legion had 508 campers, which was considered a full season. By 2013, the number had more than doubled to 1,026 guests.
“Camp is running at such an incredibly high capacity,” he explained. “Right now, we can’t do it with our small staff. In three very short years, we’ve doubled our camper population here.”
“You have to manage growth,” Moshea added. “Growth is what we want, but at the same time it presents challenges.”
Camp American Legion was started by the American Legion of Wisconsin in 1925. Back then, only veterans with physical injuries came to rest and recuperate for an all-expenses-paid week.
“Up until literally 2010, 500 was almost considered the max this camp could sustain,” Moshea said. “There were other years when 200 was a full season.”
Changes in camp policy, combined with an extension in season — from 15 weeks to 21 weeks — have made the camping experience more accessible. Now, veterans with physician-documented physical or psychological disabilities, recently returned active duty military, and families of the fallen are all welcome.
“We’re getting as much out of the Wisconsin summer season as we can,” said Moshea. “It would be exciting to take it to a year-long facility, but it’s not built for that.”
Veterans who can care for themselves come alone, and those who cannot may bring a doctor-approved caregiver. Active duty members with children are invited to bring their whole families for a bonding experience, and families of fallen military can spend a week healing among others who understand their grief.
In the past few years, camp officials have also started to set aside weeks to accommodate veterans with specific needs — those who are homeless, diabetic, struggling with substance abuse or vision-impaired — as well as weeks focused on different demographic groups — women, Wounded Warriors from recent conflicts or veterans from specific military branches.
Now entering his sixth summer as director, Moshea served in the Air Force from 1971 to 1977. “I’m right at the tail end, but I’m within the Vietnam era,” he said.
Although they see veterans of every conflict, including World War II and Korea, Vietnam veterans currently comprise the largest percentage of campers, and post-9/11 military and veterans are the fastest-growing group. Some of them have never been fishing, never been on a boat.
“Many wounded vets are from city areas — for them just to come up here, what we say is ‘a place of God and nature,’ is really healing,” added Moshea.
Healing — in the emotional, physical, mental and spiritual sense — is the camp’s mission, and in Moshea’s experience, it can’t be quantified. He’s spoken with campers who don’t want to leave, who feel good about themselves again after struggling with suicidal thoughts, post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological problems. He estimates 75 percent of campers are afflicted with some form of mental trauma.
“So much of the healing here you can’t prove,” he said. Moshea gauges their success by “the person you see when they get here, and the person you see when they leave.”
He believes in the healing environment of Camp American Legion so much so that he and others are exploring the feasibility of an ambitious, multimillion-dollar project — a conference center that could bring more wounded veterans to the Northwoods for rest and recuperation.
The new facility would be near the camp, but self-sustaining, with separate lodging, dining services and wellness programs. He envisions a place where groups of veterans could stay, learn and heal together.
Moshea was on the phone March 14, chatting with a Milwaukee man he jokingly calls “a crusty old veteran, but a great volunteer.” Meeting the camp’s future goals, not to mention its current needs, requires a lot of donated time and effort.
A group of Milwaukee volunteers comes up each year for the entire season, he said. The camp relies on long- and short-term volunteers to carry out its mission each summer; long-distance travelers bunk in Cabin 20, and local volunteers drop by for a few hours to drive pontoon boats or help turn cabins on Sundays.
Reaching out to volunteers is a yearlong effort. Moshea’s outreach begins with his local community and his parish. Fr. Aaron Devett, pastor of Holy Family, has always been very supportive of camp, he said, and many parishioners help out as well.
Moshea’s faith is personal — not something he speaks about often with others – but he calls himself “a very spiritual man,” and he truly believes the camp’s mission is also a ministry.
“I believe God has put me here for a reason,” he said. When he sees veterans regain faith in themselves, bond with their families and find peace, he sees “the good Lord using me as a tool.”
For more information about Camp American Legion or to volunteer, call 715-277-2510 or email ten.h1566164618tronw1566164618en@la1566164618pmac1566164618.