Tranquil Cambridge retreat good therapy for wounded veterans

At Patriot Point, the "mission is to show respect for and support those who've done so much for the U.S."

It's a woodsy retreat on the Eastern Shore, a 290-acre haven teeming with ducks, deer and the fish that flit along its 2.3 miles of serpentine shoreline. Long in private hands, the grounds are now to be developed as a non-profit sanctuary for wounded war veterans. Its name? Patriot Point.

"It's a comfort zone,'" retired Army Sgt. Jason Burr said of the property, which he has visited. "After seeing a whole bunch of terrible things [in Afghanistan], this place is so peaceful. I call it 'a little slice of heaven.'"

The land, near Cambridge, was purchased this week for $2.3 million by the D.C. Bowl Committee, which runs the Military Bowl football game played each year in Annapolis.

"Our mission is to show respect for and support those who've done so much for the U.S.," said Steve Beck, who is president of that organization. "We're going to turn this into someplace great — and, hopefully, a model for others to follow."

The state of Maryland is contributing $500,000 to the project; private donations make up the rest.

Plans call for renovating existing buildings and constructing several new ones. All will be handicap accessible. A pier will be extended, duck blinds repaired and a shallow fishing pond deepened. Come September, the place should be ready to welcome a handful of vets who want to hunt, fish, crab or just relax on the beach at the confluence of Parsons and Slaughter creeks.

The property had belonged to James Bugg, a businessman and World War II veteran from Chevy Chase who died in 2015. Ten years earlier, Bugg began inviting wounded veterans from Walter Reed Hospital in Washington to convalesce at the hunting lodge in Dorchester County. Burr, who lives in Easton, was among the first to go. At the time, he was recovering from injuries sustained during an ambush in Afghanistan in 2004.

Burr, who served in special operations, had been shot twice, in the left elbow and left side during his fourth combat deployment. At Walter Reed, he was undergoing physical therapy but felt he needed more.

"In the hospital, you're overwhelmed seeing all of the wounded guys. It plays on you a little bit," said Burr, 47. "At [Patriot Point] it's so tranquil, so overwhelming that it's like everything that had happened to you doesn't really matter. You can find your inner person without feeling you're being judged."

Burr recalled meeting Bugg, the owner, on his arrival there.

"He put the four of us [veterans] in his Cadillac, said 'Let's go, boys,' and drove us down dirt roads to see the property," Burr said. "I grew up in Iowa but I'd never seen anything like it."

That weekend, Burr went hunting. Left-handed, he'd lost some use of his arm in combat, so he braced the rifle on his right side – and bagged his first duck.

"That was a confidence booster," he said. "It proved that it didn't matter what injury I had because I could overcome it by learning to do things a different way. I thought, 'You're not dead yet, so keep pushing yourself for those changes to take place.'"

When Bugg died at 88, his getaway went up for sale. An acquaintance, Stuart Plank, sought to build on Bugg's enterprise and approached Military Bowl officials about buying the land. Plank is one of two founding partners of the project; the other is the Taishoff Family Foundation.

"It'll be a place where veterans can go, free of charge, to get away and just hang out," said Plank, a real estate developer from Kensington (Montgomery County) and the brother of Kevin Plank, Under Armour CEO. "A lot of these men and women have scars that aren't visible, injuries you can't see. This is like being in the middle of nowhere; with the woods all around, you can't hear a thing. That's good [therapy] for anybody."

Its isolation likely led to the property's acquisition in 1926 by Clara Bow, a silent screen actress known as the "It Girl." During Prohibition, Bow reportedly smuggled booze there by boat and held parties on the premises.

The stillness of the place speaks volumes for its allure for wounded soldiers, Burr said.

"I've been there when vets arrived from the hospital," he said. "Their demeanor changed from exhaustion and stress to smiling and laughing. Guys who don't say a word on the drive down just start to open up, and that's a key to the healing process. This may not be for all wounded veterans, but I'd put [the number] at 98 percent."

Moreover, many offer to help out during their stay, Burr said:

"They'll clean up the beach, pick up shotgun shells and camouflage the blinds as ways to say 'thank you' for the experience," he said. "You can't leave without thinking your heart is in Patriot Point."

mike.klingaman@baltsun.com

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