A peaceful place for healing pain: At MN lakes country retreat, military widows forge lasting connections

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FARGO — As members of the North Dakota Air National Guard here in 2011, Matt and Micaela Brancato lost two dear friends within a span of just two months.

Air Force Maj. David Brodeur was killed in a shooting at the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan, that April. He was Matt's roommate at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

West Fargo native Eric "Dirk" Ziegler died when the F-16 he was piloting crashed during training in Nevada that June.

"We went to back-to-back memorial services," Micaela Brancato said.

Some time later, she asked Ziegler's widow, Sarah, a fellow Fargo South High School graduate, what helped her cope with her grief. Both women grew up in Fargo, but spent summers in Minnesota lakes country.

Being back home at the lake, out in nature, was Sarah's answer.

Matt and Micaela had recently purchased a 47-acre property 10 miles south of Detroit Lakes, a former working farm with wildlife, gardens and a gentle slope down to quiet Holbrook Lake.

"That was our light bulb moment to that's what this needed to be," Brancato said.

She and her husband have since turned the property into Holbrook Farms Retreat, a place of solace for spouses of fallen military members from across the country. The nonprofit organization has sponsored several all-expense paid Survivors of Heroes retreats and hopes to hold many more, funded through rentals from other events.

Sarah Merwin, remarried since her husband's F-16 accident, is now a retreat facilitator.

"I had no idea how healing it would be for me," Merwin said. "I got just as much out of it from those women as I thought I was going to provide."

'It's still a part of you'

When Sarah's first husband died, the couple's baby was just 9 months old. She immersed herself in raising her daughter, while family and friends lent their support. But the military widow community wasn't a major part of her support system.

"I didn't know I was missing that," Merwin said.

Becoming a mentor at Holbrook Farms put her in touch with other women whose military husbands died in combat, or by accident or suicide.

"Time goes by, life goes on for everyone. This provides a place where it's OK to still be there, in that moment," she said.

Merwin and her second husband now have a 7-month-old girl, and her oldest daughter is 6 years old. Though she has a new family, the impact of Eric's death doesn't go away.

"It's still a part of you," Merwin said.

Being at Holbrook Farms has helped the walls come down, allowing women who've become widows at a young age tackle tough questions.

Sitting around a bonfire, the small group discusses anything from the black and white issues of benefits and money, to the trickier ones, including how to tell in-laws that you're going to change your child's name when you remarry.

The retreat has forged bonds among women from North Dakota, California, Texas, New Jersey, Tennessee and Florida.

"It created a network that didn't go away, because we're still in touch," Merwin said.

Not all of the getaways have been for women. One widow whose husband suffered from PTSD and died by suicide gathered up the buddies he'd been deployed with for a retreat at Holbrook.

'You move forward'

Time at the spa-themed Holbrook Farms is both scheduled and unscheduled.

The first morning is spent on the lake doing paddleboard yoga. As the week goes on, a financial expert addresses the group, and there are pontoon rides and a fancy dinner out.

Still, there's plenty of down time for a massage, trail walks, reading and naps.

"You have that common ground, and it's just so peaceful," Merwin said.

The 8,000 square feet of living space has five bedrooms, 3½ bathrooms, two kitchens and comfortably sleeps 12. There's a music room, workout space and a huge cedar deck overlooking the lake.

An alumni retreat is scheduled in mid-June and the next Survivors of Heroes retreat, for first-timers, will be in late July.

Property manager Melissa Lorentz, whose husband is a commander at the Fargo Air National Guard, is tasked with scheduling events at Holbrook.

Last summer, she put the property on the Vacation Rentals by Owner or VRBO website, to let people know Holbrook is available to rent for weddings, family reunions, corporate retreats and other events.

Holbrook will continue hosting and paying for two to three Survivors of Heroes retreats a year, and hopes other dates fill in.

"Heads in beds equals additional revenue and every time I can book another group, that's another military family we're helping," Lorentz said.

Brancato envisions other military survivors becoming mentors at Holbrook, like Merwin.

"The survivors have taught us all that you never move on, you move forward, and Sarah has done that with grace," Brancato said.

Online

Looking to register a military survivor for a retreat or to volunteer at Holbrook Farms?

Go online to: " target="_blank">www.holbrookfarmsmn.com/