Wakeboarding, kayaking, pontooning, hunting on a private preserve, 4-wheeling, ladder golf, ping pong... it was a jam-packed weekend of activity for the seven U.S. Army combat veterans who congregated at Holbrook Farms Retreat in rural Detroit Lakes over the Labor Day holiday weekend.
"We really wanted to give them a 'Minnesota experience,'" said Katie Oberg, a founding board member of the Brady Oberg Legacy Foundation, which sponsored the weekend retreat.
For six of the seven veterans, it was also a reunion: Though they all live in different parts of the country now, the six formed close bonds while serving together as part of the U.S. Army's Bravo Company 2-4 Infantry, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division, which was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010-11 as part of Operation Enduring Freedom.
"It was a very 'kinetic' deployment," said Jeremy Douglas, a Murfreesboro, Tenn., native. "We got in a lot of firefights, were targeted by suicide attacks... we had a helicopter crash. There was a 50 percent Purple Heart ratio for our battalion."
In those types of life-or-death situations, he added, the bonds that are formed can become quite intense.
"It's a very strong connection," agreed Jonathan Shinall, an Atlanta, Ga., resident who was also part of the weekend's festivities. "We had a really tight platoon."
In fact, though he hadn't seen some of them in over five years, when he ran into one of his former platoon mates at the airport en route to Detroit Lakes, "it was like we'd never been apart," he added.
Though Moorhead resident Shane Busby thought he would be "the odd man out" during the weekend retreat, as the only member of the group who served with a different unit, he was grateful to encounter quite the opposite scenario.
"They already feel like good friends," he said on Sunday. "They welcomed me in like I was one of them, and I couldn't appreciate it more." Though the main objective of the weekend retreat was to experience fun and camaraderie amongst fellow combat veterans, none of them could completely forget that there was another reason why they were all there: The six members of Bravo Company had lost their platoon mate, Brady Oberg, one year earlier, and the retreat was being sponsored by the legacy foundation that had been established in his name.
Oberg took his own life due to the devastating effects of combat-related post traumatic stress disorder, and his family and friends pulled together to create the foundation as a means of honoring his memory in a positive way, by raising awareness of combat-related PTSD; providing educational scholarships for veterans who seek a post-military career in counseling fellow veterans; and offering opportunities like this one, for combat veterans to come together with their fellow vets for "restorative, fun, stress-free" retreats. The hope is to prevent a similar tragedy from befalling them before they could find relief for their suffering.
"Everyone knew him," said Douglas of Brady Oberg. "He was an amazing soldier. He exceeded standards in every way."
"He really set the bar high," Shinall agreed. "We had to strive to be at least as good as him, and he was exceptional."
Not that he was the type to flaunt his exploits in front of his platoon mates, they added. "It was never about him," Shinall said. "It was always about the nation, and the people around him (i.e., those who served with him)."
"He was so strong," said Douglas - which was why "it was such a shock" when they learned of his suicide, he added.
It was to honor Oberg's memory that many of them made the extra effort to clear their schedules and be a part of this weekend, Shinall noted.
"For me, it's very important to see how the people I served with are doing, outside the military," Douglas said. "I appreciate the opportunity to spend time with these guys."
Though he was not a member of Oberg's unit, Busby said, he had known the Ulen native since they were children, having been a classmate of his sister, Tracy, at Ulen-Hitterdal High School, as well as serving as Oberg's baseball coach at one time.
"Tracy (Dunham, who now lives in Detroit Lakes), and I had met up a while back to talk about the foundation, and we just reconnected," he said. "She was gracious enough to invite me to take part in this weekend, and it was a real honor to accept."
He also wanted to experience "the brotherhood, and being able to talk about things with people that understood."
"That shared life experience, it's important," Shinall agreed.
Brady's widow, Katie Oberg, who is one of founding board members of the Brady Oberg Legacy Foundation, said the retreat's inaugural weekend was an unqualified success.
"The point was to get them away from their everyday stresses, have them reconnect with their fellow veterans, have them not worry about anything and just have fun with each other," she said.
"It has been a very high level of relaxation and brotherhood," said Shinall. "It's been great to see everybody again, share stories, and rekindle some of the bonds that have been lost over the last couple of years."
"The way they treat us has been incredible," said Douglas. "I've never experienced anything like it in my life."
"The generosity of this foundation... they put their hearts and souls into it," said Busby. "They live it, and they ask for nothing in return."
"They're just like kids in a candy store," remarked Brady Oberg's mother, Charlene, as she watched "the boys" splashing each other and trading quips as they enjoyed the beach outside the home of family friends, Duane and Marybeth Fevig, who welcomed the group to their lakeside residence on Sunday afternoon. "They're having so much fun."
"We lucked out with the weather," said Katie. "The guys all said how much they appreciated it... everyone gave us positive feedback and said they would love to do it again."
Next year, however, the foundation is planning to open up the application process to a broader base of veterans.
"This year it was by invite," Katie said. "We will probably have an open application process next year.
"Overall, it went very well," she added. "It was very rewarding for us (as a board) to see how happy they and appreciative they were. It's definitely inspired us to keep pushing forward and do it again next year."
For more information about the Oberg Foundation and its mission, please visit www.bradyoberglegacyfoundation.com.