SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill., Jan. 3, 2013 - With a simple idea and their fallen Marine son's Servicemembers Group Life Insurance check, a retired soldier and his wife are honoring his memory through a program that's bringing new hope and self-confidence to wounded warriors.
Pictured: William "Mike" White, founder of Camp Hope for wounded warriors, left, chats with Army Capt. Joe Bogart, a wounded warrior who said the camp restored his sense of independence. U.S. Army photo by Michael William Petersen
William "Mike" White, an equipment operator at the Military Surface Deployment and Distribution Command here, remembers as if it were yesterday the dreaded knock on the door as he and his wife, Galia, learned that their son, Marine Pfc. Christopher Neal White, had been killed. The young White, an avid outdoorsman who grew up in rural Kentucky, died in Iraq's Anbar province two days after Father's Day, 2006.
Heartbroken and guilt-ridden that he had convinced his wife to allow their son to join the military, White struggled to find meaning in their personal tragedy. "I had to take a negative and make it a positive. It had to be done," he said.
Alone on a hunting trip -- an endeavor he and his son had often shared -- White came up with the inspiration for Camp Hope.
"I wanted to start a place for our wounded guys, to teach them that even if they have one arm or one leg or no arms or no legs or they're blind, that they could still get out and enjoy the outdoors," he said. "Little did I know it was going to lead to where we are today."
The Whites used Christopher's SGLI payment to buy Chris Neal Farm, a 170-acre retreat in southeast Missouri, and home of Camp Hope.
Five years later, Camp Hope is exceeding everything the senior White could have imagined. Hundreds of combat-wounded warriors from across the United States have flocked there to participate in everything Christopher White loved: skeet shooting, hunting, fishing, hiking, exploring the great outdoors and relaxing around an ever-burning fire pit.
The idea, White explained, is to allow wounded warriors to experience the healing powers of nature as they focus on what they can do, instead of what they cannot.
Operated through private and corporate donations and a legion of volunteers, Camp Hope provides a supportive, loving environment and a renewed sense of community to wounded warriors, White explained.
"We are really not doing anything special other than offering them a place and an opportunity to be able to get back and talk with other folks whose boots have been in the same dirt," he said.
White is the first to admit that he had no grand plan when he and his wife founded Camp Hope. "Everything that has happened has pretty much been an accident," he said. "You can't plan some of the things that have happened. There is no way. It just happens."
But the healing effect, he said, is undeniable.
"There is a magic thing about Camp Hope. I can't explain it. I really can't," White said. "All I know is that it does things for the good for people. It gives a lot of hope to a lot of people. It changes their attitude when they are there."
Army Sgt. Bobby Lee Lisek, a severely wounded warrior who attended the very first gathering at Camp Hope, said he was amazed at the transformation within himself.
"Camp Hope is the greatest place ever. They don't hold you or hold you back. They don't say, 'No you can't.' There is no limit to what you can do here," he said.
Admitting to White that he'd been struggling with suicidal thoughts before arriving at Camp Hope, Lisek said, "I don't know where I'd be today if I didn't have somewhere to go like Camp hope. I'm just at peace here."
So much at peace, in fact, that Lisek volunteers his time regularly as a hunting guide, helping other visitors to Camp Hope experience the same kind of transformation he did.
Army Capt. Joe Bogart, another Camp Hope veteran, said the experience gave him a renewed sense of independence. "I got part of my old self back," he said. "I healed in ways I didn't know I needed to."
For Army Spc. Adam Berkemeier, the healing came through taking on new challenges. "They push me to do more because they know I am capable of more," he said.
For Army Staff Sgt. Jonathan Kinnamore, who called his visit to Camp Hope "one of the best experiences I've had in years," healing came through camaraderie with fellow wounded warriors.
"I had forgotten how to socialize," he said. "It was good to be able to sit around the fire pit and talk with people who had been in the same place I had been in and who knew what was going on, what I'm going through. It helped me relax for the first time in a long time."
The Whites' work at Camp Hope has received national recognition. In 2010, the Army honored White with its prestigious Spirit of Hope Award, and the National AMVETS Ladies' Auxiliary presented him its Humanitarian of the Year award.
Veterans groups and individual and corporate sponsors have stepped up their support as volunteers or donors, covering all costs for veterans to participate and even sponsoring special trips to Alaska and other destinations.
The camp has become such a success that White hopes to open a second Camp Hope, near Pennsylvania's Allegheny National Forest to reach more wounded warriors. Once it's operational, White said he plans to rely on wounded warriors who have attended the camp themselves to run its day-to-day operations.
He even envisioned it creating a ripple effect, with Camp Hopes scattered around the country to help wounded warriors heal.
White said the calls he regularly receives from parents and spouses, thanking him for the difference Camp Hope has made in their loved ones' lives, is the driving force that keeps him motivated to drive on.
"That's our payday," he said. "That's what makes us continue to do what we do."
Six years after his son's death, White still gets choked up when he talks about the enthusiastic young boy who loved the outdoors and dreamed of becoming a Marine. Making things right after losing him would be impossible, he admitted.
"But now that we know we've been able to help some of these young folks coming back, even saving some of them from committing suicide or hurting themselves, it makes it a little bit easier to accept," he said. "Camp Hope is all about Helping Other People Excel. And as it honors Christopher's memory, that's exactly what it does for these wounded warriors."
Camp Hope website: http://www.chrisnealfarm.com/public/