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Helping veterans come home

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Mike and Kenzie Mills
Mike Mills sits on the board of Project New Hope, which puts together retreats for military families. Mike attends the retreat with his daughter, Kenzie, age 14.
MPR News Photo/Ambar Espinoza

On a recent wintery afternoon after ice fishing, several adults and children walk over a frozen Glacier Lake here to a steep snowy hill overlooking the lake. Some of them climb up the hill and slide down. 

This is where Michael Mills of Freeport comes five times a year to unwind with his 14-year-old daughter Kenzie.

Mills, a member of the Minnesota National Guard, served in Iraq. He retired three years ago after his convoy was hit by a roadside bomb. He suffered third degree and deep tissue burns over nearly a third of his body.

"I broke my foot, my hip, I actually shattered my hip and I broke my shoulder," Mills said. "Along with the burns, I lost a pinky on the left hand, my thumb on my left hand, part of my nose, but my nose has been rebuilt."

Mike Mills receives Purple Heart
Mike Mills received the Purple Heart award at a ceremony in the hospital while he was injured.
Submitted by the Mills Family

After the explosion, Mills blamed himself for his injuries. He hated himself. But he quickly got over those negative feelings with his family's support and help from his psychiatrist.

To help other soldiers do the same, he has started For the Veteran, By A Veteran., one of three nonprofit organizations that aims to help returning soldiers and their families. Given the number of suicides among veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, Mills and two other veterans who created nonprofits say mental health is key.

"I started For the Veteran for a couple of reasons but the main reason is I got tired of losing my friends to suicide," said Mills, who fears that many vets are killing themselves because they first turn to drugs and alcohol.

Because many veterans may be ashamed to ask for help, for a Veteran aims to inform them about available government and private services.

"When I first joined the military and before me and even up till now, you're told, 'if you're not bleeding, you're not hurt,' " Mills said. "And that's not really true because there is pain without the blood. There is mental pain, especially being in a combat zone."

Officials with the St. Cloud VA Medical Center acknowledge that they can't help everyone. But they say they're doing the best they can to serve veterans and refer their families to other resources.

To help fill in the gaps, Mills has teamed up with two other veterans. He sits the board of Project New Hope, which puts together retreats in McGregor and other places around Minnesota five times a year. 

Veterans helping veterans
These Minnestoa veterans collaborate to help other veterans returning from deployments through their nonprofit organizations. Left to right, Jeff Butler, Bruce Billington, Mike Mills.
MPR News Photo/Ambar Espinoza

"The VA is only able to help the soldier," said Bruce Billington of Cross Lake, who founded Project New Hope. "We help the entire family. We try to provide resources that the VA is unable to give."

The three-day retreat features indoor and outdoor family activities. Adults also attend sessions led by licensed counselors, some from the Veterans Administration, on topics that include money management, communication and anger management tools. 

Dustin Oosten, a veteran and a family and marriage therapist who volunteers during these retreats, said Minnesota is among the leading states providing care for returning soldiers. But there isn't much care in remote and rural areas, he said.

"There's a gap there, and Project New Hope - hopefully we're filling that gap," Oosten said. 

Melanie Johnson, whose husband suffers from post traumatic stress disorder, agrees that resources are slim.

Johnson lives in the small community of Princeton, about 50 miles north of the Twin Cities, with a population of about 4500. Because her husband has a hard time being out in public, she said, the retreat is one of the few places where he feels comfortable as it involves a small crowd and includes other veterans. There is also no traffic noise.

"It's always nice to see him here because he'll laugh, and he'll joke and he'll smile," Johnson said. "That's who he once was, and it's still there somewhere. It's just working through some of the issues he has now to get back to that."

Sliding at a military retreat for families
Families went sledding down a steep snowy hill overlooking Glacier Lake in McGregor during a three-day military retreat for families.
Ambar Espinoza

Johnson said the retreat allows families to share experiences, especially during outdoor activities.

Minneapolis native Jeff Butler, a Vietnam era veteran who lives in Wisconsin, helps out with the outdoors component. His organization, Outdoors and Beyond, aims to give veterans and their families free trips to hunt, fish, hike and kayak. 

Butler was inspired by his uncle who served in World War II and left behind several journals in which he wrote that he had too many memories and didn't know what to do with them.

"And when he got back to St. Paul after World War II one of his friends said, 'Come up to my place in northern Minnesota and fish until you feel comfortable.' " 

After an a recent goose-hunting expedition with a veteran who is returning to Iraq for his third deployment, the veteran's father called Butler to tell him what a difference it made in his son's life.

Butler said the veteran's father told him that his son was had a renewed focus, was laughing and talking and that "this goose hunt brought my son back."