Julie Wheeler working to turn family hunting camp into retreat for suffering soldiers

JOSEPH - When a soldier comes back from war, readjusting to life at home can be a challenge. Julie Wheeler, director of Divide Camp, is creating a respite for wounded troops in the beauty and solitude of the forest between Big and Little Sheep creeks.

In the early 1960s, Wheeler's parents, Jim and Rita Fossen, bought 40 acres outside of Joseph. They built an A-frame and ran a guide and outfitter business from May to November in the Eagle Cap Wilderness.

As time went on they built a lodge and cabins, making it a comfortable hunting retreat.

Jim Fossen died in 1991 and the family took care of the camp for another 20 years.

"The camp sort of sat here except during elk season," Wheeler said. "We continued to make improvements, host clients and hunt with them."

Wheeler said when she moved to Alaska in 2004, the maintenance got neglected and by 2010 her mother decided to sell the property. She said she came to Wallowa County to clean it up enough for it to be listed.

"That's when I got the idea of the veteran's camp," she said.

For 20 years Wheeler worked in critical incident stress management, rehabilitating those who endured horrible, traumatic events in the line of duty. Her background got her thinking about how she could use the family property for troops who had been through similar situations.

On a walk through the camp, she points out wildflowers, lists the birds, the deer and the elk that make it their home. She can hear wolves howling at night and bears live close by.

"This is the most healing property I've ever spent time on," Wheeler said. "I am a strong believer that the woods and the outdoors are where people make progress."

Wheeler said the camp is being built to meet the needs of present-time combat vets.

"It's scary what's happening with vets; they have unemployment issues, suicide issues. War has the same traumatic impacts as what police, firefighters and emergency service workers go through, but war is longer and troops have more exposure. They come home and don't have a purpose or a support system."

On an August afternoon, a friend of Wheeler's from Southern Oregon, Travis Love, and Iraq war veteran Matt Hay, run a chinking machine filling in the gaps between the logs in the cabins.

Wheeler's home base is Southern Oregon, and while she has been able to find volunteers from there, she said Hay has been a big help making connections in Wallowa County.

Wheeler's dream, she said, is to have the camp run by vets, for vets and Hay fits that bill.

Hay was deployed to Iraq from 2009 to 2010. He works with Wheeler preparing the camp to open its doors to wounded veterans.

"Just being up here and being able to work helping Julie out in any way that I can has been great," Hay said.

Hay said it took him a year and a half to get plugged into any veteran services after he returned from war. He is on medication for depression and anxiety and has had trouble sleeping, but working at the Divide Camp has helped.

When Hay returned to his home in Bend after his tour, he struggled to find work and to fit back into society. He said his stepfather has done maintenance at the camp and his mother talked to Wheeler about Hay working for her.

"The idea of a place like this is important to me, especially because I'm a veteran with a 50-percent disability rating," Hay said. "I would like to bring guys in who have gone through what I have, or worse, and bring them here."

The camp, for Hay, has been what Wheeler envisions for other veterans.

"It has a healing sense to it," Hay said. "There is something about being out in the woods and away from people."

Wheeler said besides renovating the camp's buildings, she is looking for packers, guides and support from veteran centers around the region.

The renovated cabins will have bathrooms, kitchenettes and wood stoves. Wheeler said the flooring has been donated and she is looking for a plumber to complete the bathrooms.

"People have been so generous," she said.

Solar panels were installed for electricity and to run the water pump at a spring. Donated fencing supplies have been used to keep cattle and wildlife out of the spring.

The camp has its own sawmill run by Erlynn Hoffman, Wheeler said, and trees from the property are turned into boards for the various projects, including a shed, constructed at the camp.

"Erlynn can look at a tree and decide what it would be best for," Wheeler said.

Yet her biggest struggle right now is wading through the nonprofit process with the Internal Revenue Service. A willing foundation, lender or donor would help expedite the process, Wheeler said.

"I can't apply for grants because I'm waiting for nonprofit status," Wheeler said. "I've had offers from different organizations that say, 'As soon as you get your status, send in an application.'"

Contact Katy Nesbitt at 541-786-4235 or knesbitt@lagrandeobserver.com . Follow Katy on Twitter @lgoNesbitt.