By Steve Tool
Wallowa County Chieftain
A young veteran was released from treatment for severe PTSD symptoms just two weeks before, arrived at Divide Camp last summer. He was angry, scared and miserable.
A six-day nature hike through the mountains and woods surrounding the facility on the Sheep Creek Divide, around 18 miles from Joseph, allowed him to find new confidence, including catching his first fish with a fly rod.
“When he came out, the smile on his face just radiated joy,” said camp director Julie Wheeler. “Those are the things that really excite me.”
Divide Camp, a nonprofit dedicated to the healing of psychological and physical wounds of post 9-11 veterans, served the needs of 44 veterans during its 2017 season. It was the camp’s fifth year of operation.
The program allows veterans to reconnect with themselves and loved ones through nature in the form of backpacking, hunting, fishing, whitewater rafting and other outdoor pursuits.
Wheeler said that veterans have bagged 12 elk thus far with Divide Camp tags donated by local landowners and ranchers. One rancher even specified he only wanted amputees to hunt on his property.
The camp’s therapeutic benefits are not derived through mental health therapists, but from the landscape and the veterans themselves.
“Two kinds of therapy happen at Divide Camp: The campfire and the front porch,” Wheeler said.
The director has 23 years experience in working with traumatic stress.
The camp has not been without its critics. A war of words erupted on Facebook earlier this year.
Wheeler said the camp specifically serves 9-11 veterans and is a “dry camp” –– no alcohol allowed. She also said the organization spends 73 percent of its income on program costs, four percent on administrative costs and 23 percent on fundraising and marketing.
The camp had four multi-day hikes this summer, including its first through-hike in the Eagle Cap Wilderness from Tenderfoot Trailhead down to Wallowa Lake.
This season’s milestones for the camp included a project with a crew of veterans from the Umatilla National Forest that cleared brush from the property and stacked firewood.
Camp workers also finished the archery trail and course and because the property is now fenced, targets can be left out all summer without worrying about livestock destroying them. July 14 of next year will see the camp’s first-ever archery shoot specifically for combat-wounded veterans. The camp has received 30 3-D archery targets, 16 from Cabela’s, a national sporting goods company based in Nebraska, and 14 from the National Rifle Association.
Additional plans for the 2018 season will include more fishing thanks to new volunteers who will donate their time and boats on both the Snake River and Wallowa Lake. The camp also plans to offer veterans the opportunity to learn woodworking, painting, photography, hide tanning and outdoor skills.
A part-time director will be brought on board in March of 2018. The camp’s board would prefer a local person for the position. Interested individuals are encouraged to make contact.
A past guest with a degree in physical fitness designed a fitness trail with 11 stations. Camp attendees will install it next spring. This year the camp also installed a cell phone booster housed in a ‘70s-style phone booth.
“They all need to check in at home or with their families,” Wheeler said.
One of the group’s new board members is Andy Marcum, a Wallowa County native who served in the U.S. Marine Corps for five years. Marcum, a Marine K-9 handler, lost friends and suffered a traumatic brain injury in battle.
“It was a lot of just recovery and learning to be a civilian again. There’s a lot of changes you go through,” he said.
Marcum’s mother is an acquaintance of Wheeler. He first visited the camp in 2014.
In his role as a hunting guide, Marcum has worked with ranchers to obtain depredation and preference tags for disabled and combat-wounded vets.
He said that he and Wheeler are discussing giving the camp more of a spiritual element and both believe the hand of God is on the camp. Marcum said that Divide Camp offers veterans a unique experience.
“The location is great, obviously,” he said. “It’s a special place that Julie (Wheeler) and I believe that God has specifically designed for healing veterans, and that’s what’s happened.”
Marcum has participated in the Mighty Oaks Warrior Program, a Christian-based veterans service program in southern California.
“It helped me a lot with the issues I was struggling with,” he said.
He also said he’d like to see camp participants attend classes before and after their actual trips.
“Just to teach them about God’s design for being a man or a woman, marriage and leading your family,” he said. “It’s a lot about character building and what legacy you want to leave behind -- a lot of guys don’t think about it.”
He’d also like to see more female veterans in the camp and veteran’s spouses.
Marcum said he and other vets appreciated that Wheeler has lined up an enormous number of people and support for the various programs.
“It’s neat being able to connect with those guys and share our experiences, which is the biggest thing,” he said. “I’ve had help guiding some hunts and it’s not just life-changing for them, it’s life-changing for all of us.”
The camp is in need of volunteers, including camp managers to do maintenance, cook and make the camp more accessible to disabled vets, Marcum said. The camp also needs pack guides.