A Small Town Supports Wounded Warriors

Everyone’s probably heard of the Wounded Warrior Project, but there are other veteran support efforts that deserve similar recognition and acknowledgement, even if they are quite small.  Operation Black Hills Cabin in Custer, South Dakota is one of them.

One family said, “We would like to thank Operation Black Hills Cabin, the donors and the people of Custer.  Your generosity and the love you have for veterans and their families are incredibly touching.”  Another family said, “This was a life changing experience... it was exactly the family respite we needed to disconnect and reconnect.”  A third said, “My family was blown away by how this community comes together to support and provide us and every veteran and family this opportunity.”  These families are referring to the week they had just spent in the Black Hills of South Dakota thanks to Operation Black Hills Cabin (OBHC).

It is a longstanding value within the U.S. Armed Forces that the military takes care of its own.  But sometimes veterans and their families need care and support long after they leave active duty.  While the Veterans Administration has provided critical medical care to veterans who are combat wounded as a consequence of deployment on military operations in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, a multitude of non-profit organizations have sprung up to aid veterans over the long term.  

The brainchild of a retired Air Force couple in 2011, the concept was quickly embraced by both the people of Custer and the surrounding communities because it was a tangible way for the community to say thank you to the veterans and their families for their service and sacrifice. Operation Black Hills Cabin is a 501(c)3 non-profit that operates entirely from donations and volunteers -- every single contribution, whether monetary or material, goes to either the cabin or the supported families.  The mission of the Cabin is to provide a therapeutic respite to veterans and their families.  It provides an opportunity, via a week-long retreat, for the disabled veterans to reacquaint themselves with their family in a quiet, peaceful and leisurely environment, far away from the stress and daily routine that has become their “new normal.”

The fully handicapped-accessible 1,200-square-foot cabin, with three bedrooms and two bathrooms, was donated by the South Dakota Housing Authority.  Built by state prison inmates, one of whom was so inspired by the OBHC mission he donated his weekly pay, it was escorted by the Patriot Guard Riders the entire 375-mile journey to Custer.  Volunteers built a “healing hike” on the one-acre property, which is leased from the City of Custer for $1 a year, that includes benches at scenic overlooks and inspirational quotes sandblasted into rocks along the path.

The families stay at the cabin for free, and while it has no television, internet, or telephone, it is fully furnished and has a fully stocked kitchen and laundry.  A welcoming committee meets each family and explains the wide variety of potential activities available to them.  Options include watching the abundant local wildlife, playing a variety of indoor and outdoor games, or exploring the Black Hills.  The local business community has enthusiastically supported OBHC and the families are given coupons for free meals and free admission to many popular Black Hills attractions, such as Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and the Custer State Park.  The cabin operates from Memorial Day to the end of September and can host up to 17 families a year.  Since its beginning in 2011, 139 families from 36 states have stayed at the cabin.

The biggest challenge OBHC currently faces is getting the word out about this unparalleled opportunity for qualified veterans.  To qualify, a veteran has to be a minimum of 30% combat injured from any post-September 11, 2001 military operation.  Warrior Transition Unit members are also eligible.  Qualified veterans can apply at any time. The application and further information about Operation Black Hills Cabin are available at the website.

Operation Black Hills Cabin and the Custer community exhibit the best attributes of American culture and traditions and they serve as a living example that small, local efforts matter.  Small-town America has something valuable to give to our wounded veterans and their families. Evidence of ‘mission accomplished’ by OBHC and the community has been provided by families every year.  One said, “OHBC is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.  I was very emotional the entire trip thinking about how such a small community can come together to honor each family.  I rarely see my husband smile or laugh anymore... but during this trip he actually was smiling for the majority of the trip.  That in itself is a memory that my children and I will have for many years to come.”  Another veteran echoed the sentiment in 2022, “Our family received a one-of-a-kind message of gratitude for our service to this country.  Never in our lives have we felt this kind of sincere thank you for our service to this country.”

Colonel Deborah Hanagan (U.S. Army, retired) is a proud volunteer for Operation Black Hills Cabin

Image: Operation Black Hills Cabin

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