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Operation Black Hills Cabin


Veterans who served in conflict over the last ten years have seen a different kind of war than those who fought in World War Two and Vietnam.  And they have different wants and needs.  What began as a way for the community of Custer to say thank you to veterans has turned into saving families and relationships.  SDPB’s Cara Hetland has more on Operation Black Hills Cabin.  

Pat Baird is a retired military veteran.  She and her husband both served in the Air Force and the North Dakota Air National Guard.  They know what it means to sacrifice for their country.  But it took an Oprah show about a South Dakota soldier to really drive home the responsibility to thank veterans of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
“We thought what can we do to help families?” says Baird.  “Not something we were looking to do or know anything about but all these people have become part of the project and it’s just grown into this.”
The cabin is a three-bedroom two-bathroom 12-hundred square foot cabin that’s nestled on the edge of Custer in a secluded wooded area.  It’s referred to as Operation Black Hills Cabin.  Baird says Injured war veterans and their families can enjoy a free week long vacation in the Black Hills of South Dakota. 

“The cabin was built in Springfield at the Mike Durfee Prison by inmates.  You’ll see solid pine doors, a great floor, warm orange colors in the living room and kitchen area, vaulted ceilings with central air and a sprinkler system. And gorgeous oak cabinets the prisoners made,” says Baird.
There’s also a stone fireplace, over-stuffed leather furniture, a fully stocked kitchen and laundry and sleeps eight.
“The master bath has a roll in shower – rest of cabin has wide doorways but the kitchen doesn’t have lowered countertops because this project is for families.  A handicapped person would never be here alone they’d have their caregiver with them,” says Baird.
The state covered the cost of the cabin, which arrived in March, and the city of Custer donated the land.  Custer Mayor Gary Lipp says there’s room on the property for two more cabins if the program expands.  He says he feels it’s his duty to make sure the project of providing free vacations for veterans succeeds.  

Credit Cara Hetland
Fireplace in the cabin near Custer.

“It’s the families who give up a lot and the ones that come back injured its forever and it’s tough,” says Lipp.  “They’re trying to make the best of the world they’ve got left and it’s not the same as the one I have. I’ve got my mobility. It’s a luxury they’re providing me.”
Lipp and the community of Custer are also providing luxury for the guests.  Restaurants and local attractions donate coupons for free meals and entrance fees.  A retired neighbor donated fishing poles and his phone number to guide a day at the lake. Others donate cleaning services and even babysitting.
Meghan Palmer and her husband Jason were the first guests of Operation Black Hills Cabin two years ago. That was before a permanent cabin was in place.  Then-renters lend out a week for veterans. But scheduling became too difficult and the designated cabin opens this week.

Credit Meghan Palmer
Meghan and Jason Palmer

“Jason has a moderate brain injury.  He also is severely photophobia – severely sensitive to light and he has PTSD,” says Meghan. 
Meghan and Jason have been married for about six years.  She married him knowing the extent of his injury and supports the regular trips to see neurologists and therapists and other specialists.  But, at the same time, she credits a vacation in the Black Hills with making them stronger as a couple.
“It was our first vacation and we were able to unwind and focus on being a family and being together and not have to worry about the everyday stresses of living with a brain injury or living with a disabled soldier.  He wasn’t Jason soldier disabled veteran – he was Jason Palmer the husband and the father,” says Meghan.
Meghan and Jason have taken an active role in Operation Black Hills Cabin.  They write a welcome letter to veterans who are selected for the vacation, and they also make sure families have what they need so they treasure the week away.
Larry Zimmerman, South Daktoa Secretary of Veterans Affairs, says today’s veterans have different needs and different stress. He says they fought a war with a different kind of enemy.
“People you’re building schools for and drilling wells for and talking to that day or kids handing out candy to might be the ones shooting at you that night or could be walking up to you with a bomb under their clothes,” says Zimmerman. 
Zimmerman says it’s these soldiers who need their families most and, if a week long vacation can keep a family together, there’s no monetary value to place on the service of people like Pat Baird and her husband Jeff. 
Zimmerman says about 30 percent of the soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan are disabled.  That’s about 50-thousand wounded warriors who are eligible for Operation Black Hills Cabin.

Cara Hetland is the Director of Radio and Journalism Content for South Dakota Public Broadcasting.