Proposed veterans retreat faces challenges

Plan would turn county park into Camp Eagles Rest

By Jake Thomas, Columbian staff writer



Just a few miles east of Interstate 5 outside of Woodland, Ryon Morrison and Sean Guard walked along a fern-lined path into a clearing surrounded by trees.

“I don’t know how you feel, but I feel like I’m in the middle of nowhere,” Morrison said.

This middle of nowhere is Bratton Canyon Park, a Clark County-owned property that Guard and Morrison hope will be the future home for Camp Eagles Rest. If their plan plays out, the camp will offer returning veterans recreational opportunities and programming in a tranquil setting that will help them return to civilian life.

They’ve formed a nonprofit to manage the camp and are in talks with the county about leasing the park to provide what they said is a sorely needed service for veterans who struggle with family turmoil, as well as physical and mental trauma and other issues after returning from service.

But not everyone is on board. The camp would require cabins and a larger building to be built, taking up nearly half of the park. The proposal has raised concerns with nearby residents as well as county councilors who want better assurances that the new nonprofit will be able to deliver.

“I’m cautious about it, and I’m skeptical of its feasibility,” said Councilor Jeanne Stewart. “And I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings or not support veterans, but I have to look out for the interests of the county.”

How about a retreat?

Guard, who also serves as the mayor of Washougal, said the idea for the camp first developed while he was volunteering with veterans organizations. He said he noticed that veterans would become quiet and guarded while in big crowds.

“But they’re completely different when around other veterans,” he said. “They’re relaxed. They know they are with people who really walked in their boots.”

Guard has known Morrison, an Army veteran who served in Kosovo and Iraq, for years. Both recalled about two years ago how Morrison, who said he had physical and emotional trauma from Iraq, was sharing with Guard how he was having a “beyond difficult” time with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I remember Sean asking, ‘Well, what if we put together a retreat?’ ” recalled Morrison, who hopes the camp will complement existing services. “For me, it sounded truly amazing. I asked, ‘What’s the next step?’ ”

The next steps were lots of Google searches and the creation of a nonprofit called Columbia River Veterans Organization in Washington last year. The nonprofit’s board includes Morrison as well as former Vancouver City Councilman Larry Smith. Guard serves as volunteer executive director.

The county leases out space on its parks to nonprofits. Last year, Guard approached the county about using one of its properties for the camp. They said they looked at several properties, but none worked out. Finally, they settled on Bratton Canyon Park, an 80-acre out-of-the-way property that’s a short drive to the Lewis River.

“We want it to remain rustic. We want it to remain natural,” said Guard, who envisions the 30-acre camp on the property to include eight cabins that bunk four as well as a larger building for meals and programs. It will be walled off to keep out transients, he said.

‘Giving that park away’

In September, the county and the nonprofit held a meeting in La Center to get feedback from residents. Some are supportive of the project. But others worry about such a new organization managing the camp. They also have concerns it will attract transients when not in use and that it will restrict public access.

“I can’t understand why we would be giving that park away when we have so much more population,” said Marilyn Weese, who lives nearby.

Jan Ayers, who also lives nearby, said she took issue with the amount of fundraising required for the camp, staff salaries, and what will happen to the land if the lease isn’t renewed with the county. She also mentioned Guard’s “history.” Earlier this year, Guard admitted to the Washington State Patrol that he paid a woman $300 shortly after receiving sexual favors from her. Guard has not been prosecuted.

In an email, Bill Bjerke, county parks manager, wrote that Bratton Canyon consistently sees about a dozen or fewer visitors a day, which is less than other parks.

Feasibility questioned

Councilors Stewart and Eileen Quiring have also raised questions about its feasibility.

Stewart also said 30 acres for the camp seems like a large portion of the park. She said that she’s reluctant to approve a lease with an organization with no track record that would need to raise over a million dollars for the project in addition to hundreds of thousands each year to keep it going.

“What I know, and the community knows, is that there is a challenge to get adequate funding for all kinds of veterans programs,” said Stewart.

Guard said that his group has raised $10,000 so far. He expects the total budget for the first year of the camp will be $120,000, which will cover the wages for an executive director, two part-time camp assistants and a cook.

He said the IRS recently approved the group’s nonprofit status, which he said will help with fundraising. He added that if the county approves an agreement for the park, the nonprofit could greatly step up its fundraising efforts and possibly offer programs by 2019.

Naomi McLaughlin, a clinical social worker who’s also on the board, said that the camp’s programs will help veterans reintegrate into civilian life from the highly structured military environment. She said that programming could help veterans relearn how to open up and communicate with loved ones. Existing camps that provide these services can’t keep up with demand, she said. Guard added that the programs could cover finances, marriage, and will include some sort of community service component.

“There have got to be places, not just clinics and pharmacies, where they can go for healing,” he said.

Clark County Councilor Julie Olson, whose district includes the camp, said that while she’s supportive of the project, the county needs to do its due diligence and have a thorough public process.

“So I think the more engagement we have the better,” she said.