- Associated Press - Monday, October 31, 2016

CHAPLIN, Conn. (AP) - Deep in the Eastern Connecticut woods, two businessmen are launching a camp meant to serve veterans stalled at the crossroads of military service and uncertain futures.

The Veterans Base Camp, whose logo is a tilted compass, will help returning service members find direction, co-founder and camp CEO Darrell Chaloult said.

Chaloult and Bruce Maneeley, owner of Maneeley’s Banquet & Catering in South Windsor, bought the 10-acre camp site and an additional 35 acres of land for about $400,000 last year. Formerly an overnight camp for autistic children, the site includes a 7,000-square-foot main house and seven cabins, each about 450 square feet. The land behind the compound slopes gently down to a pond, and all around is the hardwood forest of the Last Green Valley.

Chaloult, 68, is a U.S. Marine Corps veteran of the Vietnam War and owner of an Ashford-based construction business. He and Maneeley have known each other since 1985 and have partnered on other business ventures. Initially, they proposed a substance abuse treatment facility for the Chaplin camp, but residents in the town of about 2,300 rose in fierce opposition.

The partners switched focus and gained the planning and zoning commission’s approval in September for the veterans camp. First Selectman Matthew Cunningham said residents have embraced the camp’s mission.

“I don’t know that anybody spoke against it,” Cunningham said. “It was a complete 180 from the response to his first plan.”

The thicket of regulations around veterans benefits can be daunting, Chaloult said, but he and Maneeley will work to ask the right questions, cut through red tape and get veterans the counseling, education and job training services they have earned. The partners have been self-employed “our whole lives,” Chaloult said, “and we understand that government is not always the best entity to get things done.

“We believe we can act to help vets get to where they want to be,” he said.

Of course, he acknowledged, camp leaders will be working with the government. The organization has hired a Desert Storm and Iraq War veteran, John Cianci, 53, who said his own struggles to get benefits have equipped him to help other veterans looking for education and job training aid.

Many veterans struggle to find the right path after being discharged, and many can’t navigate the bureaucracy, Cianci said. The Veterans Base Camp logo, he said, captures the veteran’s position and the camp’s mission.

“It’s a little off to the left of north,” Cianci said of the compass. “That’s the veteran. We just need to adjust him, to get him to go where he wants to be, not where he is now.”

The camp is collaborating with a U.S. Veterans Administration program called the Veterans Economic Communities Initiative. Launched in May 2015, the program “supports the economic success of veterans and their families by bringing together community partners to coordinate and integrate services at the local level,” the VA said in a news release.

In a speech about the initiative last year, Obama said, “Everybody can do something. Every American. Every business. Every profession. Every school. Every community. Every state. All of us as one American team.

“That’s how we will truly honor our veterans,” the president continued. “That’s how we will truly say thank you. That’s how we will uphold the sacred trust with all who’ve served in our name.”

Camp leaders have forged ties with Eastern Connecticut State University, and a university professor will sit on the board of directors, Chaloult said.

Cunningham said he and other residents are eager to help the camp succeed.

Chaloult said bikers with the Chrome N Steel Veteran Riders club have offered their volunteer services. Many people, he said, want to help.

Although the camp’s primary focus is on veterans, the facility also will be available as a program and meeting site for police officers and other first responders dealing with stress and other job-related issues. Chaloult noted that both first responders and military service members have higher-than-average suicide rates.

The camp will be centered on work to keep minds occupied, he said. It will be run military-style, starting with reveille and a flag-raising. A neighbor, Chaloult said, made him promise there would be no dawn bugle-blowing, so a rooster will serve as the wake-up call.

The main house has a commercial kitchen, a large dining room and bunk rooms. On a typical day, the 25-30 resident veterans would have breakfast and meet with on-site counselors and in peer gatherings. A bank of computers will be set up so vets can pursue education and job training goals, Chaloult said.

Veterans will stay at the camp for up to three months. They are to be transported to job training sites, including businesses owned by Maneeley and Chaloult. Training is to be offered in construction, auto body work, building maintenance, business management, catering, cooking, solar panel and fiber optic installation and cybersecurity. The partners are renovating the Ashford Dairy Bar in Ashford for use in the camp’s restaurant training program, Maneeley said.

Veterans Base Camp will be alcohol and drug-free, with no tolerance for violations, Chaloult said. Veterans will do chores, such as gardening, painting, working in the mess hall and latrine duty, he said. They also will have a bucolic setting for recreation and meditation.

“We want the vet to be involved,” Chaloult said. “We want the vet to be empowered.”

The organization will seek grants and donations, he said. Camp leaders also plan to launch a line of food products, similar to the salad dressings and other products that Paul Newman developed to fund his Hole in the Wall Gang Camp for children in Ashford, Chaloult said.

He said he could not have a better partner than Maneeley, the most generous person he has ever known. In 2004, Maneeley threw a party for Connecticut National Guard soldiers and their families at his South Windsor banquet hall. In the three years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, state units had been deployed to Middle East combat zones and soldiers had returned with grievous wounds, some in flag-draped coffins. The suffering and the sacrifice affected him, Maneeley said.

“They’re here to protect us, and I don’t think they get enough credit for what they’ve done for this world,” he said.

Asked about Chaloult’s motivation in starting the camp, Chaplin First Selectman Cunningham said, “He’s been a successful businessman. He wanted to do something to give back, and I think he’s found it.”

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Information from: Hartford Courant, https://www.courant.com


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