Retreat for veterans and Gold Star families grows under Military Bowl support
By Matthew Adams, Stars and Stripes
WASHINGTON — Hugh Middleton knows all too well the good that comes from Patriot Point.
“I can visibly see the difference in an individual within the first hour of being here. They’re standing straighter, there’s brightness in their eyes,” he said. “It is an incredible transformation.”
Patriot Point is a 294-acre coastal waterfront retreat in Dorchester County, Md., for veterans, Gold Star families and caregivers.
The property was purchased by the Military Bowl Foundation in 2016. The foundation runs the annual Military Bowl in Annapolis, which is scheduled Dec. 27 between Tulane and Virginia Tech. Part of the ticket proceeds will go Patriot Point.
Steve Beck, president and executive director of the Military Bowl Foundation, said the property was purchased in 2016 for more than $2 million. The idea for the retreat came thanks to Stuart Plank, a friend who said he was thinking about buying the property, located along Chesapeake Bay on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
The previous late owner, Jim Bugg, was the founder and chairman of the Yellow Ribbon Fund, a charity that primarily helps U.S. service members who were injured on active duty and recovering at Walter Reed Medical Center. He had the notion of using the property, known as Poverty Point, as a retreat for wounded service members and veterans.
“The next thing you know, it morphed into this basically retreat center for wounded, ill and injured [veterans], their family and caregivers,” Beck said. “We are extremely proud of what we’ve been able to do. It’s way more than any of us ever envisioned.”
By the end of the year, nearly 500 guests will have visited Patriot Point. Among the various activities is an expansion of “the farm to the table experience” so guests can learn about raising chickens. Construction on a new barn to house farming equipment and other large items will begin soon, Beck said.
The Military Bowl Foundation works with over 20 non-profit organizations to arrange visits and weekend outings at Patriot Point. Some of the participating organizations include the Warrior Reunion Foundation and Gold Star Teen Adventures.
Warrior Reunion Foundation is a national organization that began in 2017 as a way for combat veterans to reconnect, said executive director Bart Cole. The organization visited Patriot Point for the first time in 2021 and has since returned five more times — twice per year since 2021.
When the Warrior Reunion Foundation participates in weekend trips to Patriot Point, the first day is spent doing team activities, including fishing and skeet shooting, and trying to “knock the rust off” to open up lines of communication, said Cole, a 12-year Marine veteran.
“These guys used to be able to hit something 500 yards and now they can’t hit a disc that’s out 25 feet from them,” he said.
On Sundays the foundation participates in a service project like beach clean ups or fixing a front gate on the property.
“That location … you have the people that are there with you and it allows you to unplug,” Cole said. “The way it is set up, it allows the guys to bond over whatever they’ve got going on. There are [times] that they can have one-on-one with one another or maybe they need to bury the hatchet on something. And it allows the space for that.”
Gold Star Teen Adventures was developed by Col. Kent Solheim, commander of the Special Warfare Medical Group at Fort Liberty, N.C., and founder of the non-profit in 2013. Solheim lost his right leg in an attack in Karbala, Iraq, in 2007.
During his recovery, he thought about what would have happened to his two young children if he were killed, and the idea of Gold Star Teen Adventures was born.
At first the organization focused on Army Green Beret families but expanded to families with ties to U.S. Special Operations Command and later the broader military community. In the last few years, the organization has also started including children of civilian first responders.
“We finally got to the point where we’re like, ‘You know what, let’s just open the doors,’ ” Solheim said. “We felt like there was an opportunity to serve some real kids in need, and it shouldn’t matter what their father did in the military.”
When working with Gold Star children, the focus is not on grieving about loss but helping them move forward and grow as people. That means spending time outdoors and challenging them, whether in scuba diving, firearm safety or hunting.
Gold Star Teen Adventures has made at least three visits to Patriot Point. The group visited last month during Veterans Day weekend to participate in a duck hunt.
“I think very highly of the people that are there. They have a heart for what they are doing there and it shows,” Solheim said. “Luckily, they have a facility to match their passion.”
Middleton, a former Navy SEAL who grew up in nearby Queenstown, Md., is Patriot Point’s vice president of operations and development, and knows the challenges that wounded veterans and their families face.
He is 100% service disabled, has gone through two total shoulder replacements and has lost count of his concussions. Many of his old comrades suffer from mental health issues and in the last 13 months, five of them took their own lives.
“I say it a lot, Patriot Point is as good for me as anyone who rolls through these gates,” he said. “For me to be able to talk to all the people I do, it’s therapeutic. I have a purpose.”
Middleton said funding Patriot Point costs about $640,000 a year. A long-term goal is to establish a $10 million endowment so that “the place will live forever.”
“We now have a 20-year generation of people that will need a place like Patriot Point. There will be another war at some point,” Middleton said. “The need for this will never go away.”