The Military Bowl benefits a quiet veterans' retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore
By GENE WANG | The Washington Post | Published: December 27, 2019
TAYLORS ISLAND, Md. — Thousands are expected at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium for the Military Bowl on Friday afternoon, with supporters of North Carolina and Temple cheering on their teams.
Some 70 miles south of Annapolis on the same day, a handful of military service members recovering from combat are scheduled to arrive at Patriot Point for a weekend with far less commotion, at a bucolic retreat designed to aid their recoveries from physical and psychological trauma.
In April 2016, the Military Bowl Foundation, the game's organizer, partnered with Washington-area developer Stuart Plank and the Tashioff Family Foundation to purchase Patriot Point. Revenue from the bowl game goes toward funding the facility. The secluded property nestled on 290 acres over 2.3 miles along Maryland's Eastern Shore, to provide those who have served a place to rejuvenate through activities such as fishing, duck hunting and even yoga.
"Even though I couldn't help but think while I'm sitting out on that duck blind - I'm holding a rifle and I'm in camouflage, I can't help but overlay my combat experience with what I'm actually seeing - but it helps me," said Randy Johnson, a retired Army sergeant who spent the weekend before Christmas at Patriot Point. He is one of about 500 guests at the facility this year.
"It's kind of like mindfulness, and the scenery and the duck hunting, it's just so beautiful, peaceful and calming. That's what I get out of it. It's relaxing."
Johnson was injured during a deployment as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom. These days he works with Heroes Haven, an organization based in Sharptown, Maryland, whose mission includes providing hunts for wounded service members in addition to injured police, EMS and firefighters.
Justin Zwobota was among the handful of veterans accompanying Johnson last weekend after being wounded during a deployment in Iraq with the 243rd Engineer Company, a 169-member unit that had been in the region starting in August 2005 to transport supplies.
The 243rd Engineer Company included the first members of the Maryland National Guard to be killed overseas in the line of duty since World War II, according to a spokesman, when three soldiers died in October 2005 after an 18-wheeler struck the back of their armored vehicle, sparking a fire and detonating ammunition.
"Oh man, just being able to be with a group of guys that can relate to things," Zwobota, a heavy wheel vehicle mechanic, said of his time at Patriot Point. "I can talk to my wife about things, and she tries her best to understand, but man, if I say the same thing to one of these guys, they were there. They did it.
"The opportunity to get to spend time with soldiers again is an A-plus. That's a big deal."
Zwobota's wife joined him during the couple's visit to Patriot Point, which is adjacent to the 28,000-acre Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge called the "Everglades of the North" and named one of the "Last Great Places" by the Nature Conservancy.
Among the many waterspouts available at Patriot Point, which continues to undergo major renovations since the Military Bowl Foundation's purchase, in addition to fishing are boating, kayaking and paddle boarding.
Visitors also may participate in crabbing, skeet shooting and archery or work out at the state-of-the-art Under Armour fitness center, but hunting remains the most compelling draw, attracting notable veterans such as former President George H.W. Bush and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf.
Patriot Point is a registered shooting area with a five-stand skeet range, and caretaker Tim Mitchell, a Vietnam veteran, is responsible for raising the estimated 2,000 ducks at the retreat comprising a main house built in 1925 and several other structures, including a new guesthouse.
Mitchell has spent four decades assisting other ailing service members and said Patriot Point is so important to him that he plans to live out the rest of his life helping to maintain the property. He only recently began to speak publicly about his military experience, citing the backlash directed at many Vietnam veterans at the time upon their return to the United States.
"We were cussed," Mitchell said.
The cathartic moment for Mitchell came not long after the Military Bowl Foundation purchased Patriot Point and welcomed one of the first groups of injured veterans.
When those servicemen met Mitchell for the first time, he recalled, they thanked him for raising awareness about veterans' issues and affording them opportunities that otherwise may not have existed.
"The peer-to-peer mentoring that goes on is what I really see as the strongest power," said David Dougherty, a retired Army sergeant and the Skills4Life director at the Military Warriors Support Foundation that sent approximately 70 veterans and family members to Patriot Point this past year.
"Like-minded people together being able to discuss anything and everything. After that first 24 to 36 hours, they start getting comfortable with each other, and they start telling their stories, and that's the most healing part of all of it in my opinion."