Helping vets get back on their feet

Flags representing different military branches of veterans.Dan Buckwald at the front of the Veterans Legacy Camp, showing off the peaceful sceneryEMMA ROUTELY/PHOTOS

VENETA —So often, it’s a cruel fact of life that our veterans — the heroic men and women who survived while fighting for our country — find themselves back in harm’s way once they return to civilian life.

Whether it’s problems related to PTSD, drug and alcohol abuse, or a U-pick-’em list of mental-health issues, many vets wind up homeless or incarcerated. In fact, Oregon has the nation’s highest percentage — 19% — of imprisoned vets. (Colorado, with 11%, is the next highest.) 

That’s where the Veterans Legacy organization comes in. The Camp Alma Veterans Wellness Camp, located in Veneta, has spent the last five years helping vets get back on their feet, teaching them new skills, and most importantly, becoming good citizens. 

Buckwald picking tomatoes, one of the garden’s many growing vegetables taken care of by the residents.

“It’s all about embracing our vets,” Executive Director Dan Buckwald, of Cottage Grove, said. “There’s no magic pill. You might not be able to go to a game because of your PTSD, but you can still go to a play. 

“The veteran has to have a say about what his health looks like. … Maybe look at yoga or other relaxation techniques.”

Right now Camp Alma is hosting five vets for its Tiny House Program, which offers on-the job construction experience while building 10 small homes. The first sign-up for that 12-month program was 64-year-old Joe Key, who had been homeless for 10 years.

“Joe has cardiac issues, a bleeding ulcer … but he’s gained 35 pounds,” Buckwald said. “He’s from Idaho and had to get an ID card. Now he’s getting Social Security and food stamps.

“I would love to have tiny home communities for people like Joe. They would be great for Community Watch — in camp or in any community.”

The 2007-08 financial crisis brought Camp Alma to its knees. It sat there, unoccupied, for seven years. 

Now, this current pandemic has left Buckwald and his staff practically on their knees begging for support from the community — financial or otherwise.

“We only have a five-man crew out there. When we get funding we want to go to a 10-man crew,” Buckwald said. “We can’t get there without the funding, though.”

The camp has plenty of needs.

It needs a live-in caretaker. It needs a grant writer. It needs trade professionals, plumbers and electricians. Agricultural workers and a social media brainiac are being sought too. If you wish to make a donation or if you just want to volunteer, you can go to [email protected] — or call 541-914-0885. 

Buckwald said it’s always a rewarding feeling to see veterans make that transition to a productive lifestyle. 

Getting there, more often than not, though, is quite the painstaking, arduous process.

“We only ask that they work four hours every day. When they ask for a day off, I ask them how many days off they got when they were homeless?” Buckwald said. “I still have to mow my yard and do my household chores on my days off.”

Buckwald, who was the camp director for nearly 10 years before the initial financial crisis reared its head, is a man of a million one-liners and jokes. “I live in the moment, they love me,” Buckwald said. He knows how to relate to the vets; and they know they can joke around with him as long as they don’t forget about who’s the boss. 

“You can’t like others until you like yourself,” Buckwald said. “You watch men change. … I tell people to leave here better than when you got here.”

Camp Alma is also developing a Microenterprise Program in which crops will be grown to produce signature hot sauces and ketchups for local vendors and farmers markets. Workers learn skills related to gardening, food prepping and food preservation. 

“We’ve come a long way with these guys. It’s like night and day from how it was when we first started,” Buckwald said. “It’s more like a commune than a camp now, because everybody helps each other out.

“We’re vet-centric — we’re selling the experience. After what these guys have experienced, you’d think they should be greeted by grandma with a plate of cookies. … But we’ve a job to do here.”

Let’s hope the community response is resounding!



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