Fate leads Navy widow to plan retreat for veterans
By DIANNA CAHN | The Virginian-Pilot | Published: July 14, 2014
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. — The journey to this 38-acre homestead near Pungo is a slow, winding drive through farm country.
Turn into the driveway, and it's a straight shot through a long archway of trees into a place where the outside world disappears.
With its grassy pastures and stables, giant shade trees and a dock on a deep canal, Lynnette Bukowski knew almost instantly: This was what she'd been searching for.
Here, four years after the death of her husband, a veteran Navy SEAL, she could realize his dream of building a retreat for veterans returning from war. A sanctuary far away from everyday pressures, where warriors have a chance to heal.
"After 9/11, some of the guys were gone for a year doing hard-core stuff," she said. "Imagine coming home, the kids running around. I am going to give them a place to decompress."
She's been on the property for only two weeks, but Bukowski can imagine every square inch in use: the existing farmhouse, where everyone will come together around her huge table; the stables, riding arenas and kennel for service dogs all refurbished; and, eventually, a memorial garden for quiet walks, yoga and meditation; a gym, obstacle course and climbing tower.
"The only thing that will be required is that they eat meals together and meet at the fire pit just to kind of encourage talking," she added.
Like the drive to her property, Bukowski's vision took time to unfold. She was at her husband Steve's side through his 32-year career as a SEAL and lived through countless transitions each time he returned from deployment.
She learned to give him space and to create a place where Steve's SEAL brothers liked to gather. "Silent nurturing," she called it.
"All the guys from his platoon would hang out at our house. I'd cook, they'd eat. I thought, 'This is how they get through the deaths,' " she said.
Her role as den mother to the frogmen earned her the nickname "Frog Queen" — her Twitter handle today.
Steve envisioned a more formal version of that environment when the couple bought a small farm in North Carolina. They started bringing equipment and material to build cottages.
When he died of a sudden heart attack in June 2010, just six months after retiring, he left behind piles of lumber and flooring, a brand new horse and "a thousand little dreams unfinished," their daughter Sheri wrote on her mother's blog, "grace beyond grace."
"After Steve died, I just kind of went numb for a year," Bukowski said. "This didn't come back to me until after I came out of that cloud."
At first, she posted pictures online of what she envisioned the retreat would look like. She started the blog and gained followers. The idea took shape.
Bukowski drew on her background as a paralegal and former ombudsman to SEAL families. She filed the paperwork and waited 17 months for LZ-Grace — the LZ stands for Landing Zone — to become a nonprofit.
Now, in a spot twice the size of their place in North Carolina, she and her daughter have begun making Steve's dream a reality.
The farm in North Carolina was missing something. Steve wanted a big red maple, and there wasn't one to be had.
So the couple went from nursery to nursery until they found a baby red maple and planted it in the front yard.
After he died, Bukowski and her daughter would laugh that "At least he got to plant the damn tree," Sheri wrote on the blog.
After his death, Bukowski sold the farm and moved to Virginia Beach.
She and her daughter began searching for a location for LZ-Grace. They found a beautiful property with a statue of St. Francis of Assisi out front. But the owner wasn't ready to sell.
Two years went by, and one day, Bukowski's daughter went to see an abandoned horse farm in foreclosure. She texted her mom a picture of a single maple tree, standing at the end of a line of oak, pine and pear trees — the only one in sight across 38 acres.
At the back of the property, hidden in clover near the muck of the canal, she saw a small, damaged statue of St. Francis. He was missing a hand and had a hole through his heart.
She started to weep, then texted her mother.
"Aren't we supposed to be lending a helping hand and healing peoples' hearts?"
The property was on the market for $995,000, less than half of its original $2.1 million asking price. Still, Bukowski didn't have enough money.
What they lacked in funds, they made up for in faith. They reached out to family, friends and the SEAL community and, within days, had raised enough for a down payment.
"As she will tell you," Bukowski said, nodding to her daughter, "I have no fear. I am really blessed with the ability to see the vision and have the faith, and once I do, I am like a bulldozer."
The Bank of Hampton Roads, which had foreclosed on the property, gave Bukowski a loan to buy it back from them. She sees it as just one of the many acts of grace that have ushered the project along its path.
A niece will be the groundskeeper.
A good friend who's an arborist and teacher has offered to make the memorial garden her class project next semester.
"People are really amazing," Bukowski said. "I am really astonished at the people who have a heart for this mission that I didn't know before."
The walk from the farmhouse down to the canal passes a dog kennel and a building holding garages and horse stalls that she plans to convert into housing and an art studio.
The wooden dock with built-in seating on the canal offers perfect isolation.
"I come out here in the mornings with my coffee and just breathe," Bukowski said. "And pray for sponsors."
There's much to do before she opens the retreat to her first guests, which she plans to do in six months, starting with 10 special operations veterans at a time. She's applied to the Navy SEAL Foundation to help finance the climbing tower, and her 89-year-old mother has helped cut back the biggest trees on the property.
Inside the farmhouse, Bukowski has set up a small office off the kitchen. There, she exhibits Steve's photos and plaques, a folded American flag from his funeral and his pins and commendations. His ashes sit in an engraved box. His dog tags rest by her bedside in her private quarters upstairs.
Theirs was a true love story. She met him as a young singer. He was in the front row. She sang Van Morrison's "Moondance." He asked her to dance before the song was over.
"You were always the master of the calculated risk," she wrote in a recent blog post. "You still are. You step into my space and back into Heaven as though you're simply leaving for work."
As she packed up to move to Pungo, she realized that the memories that matter don't go in boxes. They are within her and give her strength.
This is her life's challenge, she wrote. "Taking your impromptu visits, our memories and our dream and using them all to step into my future. I've got this with both hands and enough of you in me and around me to love whatever gets in my way until it ceases to be an obstacle."