Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Camp American Legion: Northwoods hope and healing
The snoring ripped through the cabin and got so loud, Gary Pochert gave up at 4:30 a.m. and headed for the water.
“I went out on the pier, threw my line in the water, and every cast, I pulled out a bass. It was magical.”
That early morning in 2009, Pochert was like thousands of other Veterans for more than 90 years who spent time in the Wisconsin Northwoods for rest and recuperation at Camp American Legion.
And he’s been trying to stay as long as possible ever since.
Pochert, a Veteran who gets his care at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, has now worked at the camp the last two seasons as a full-time volunteer where he charters the pontoon fishing boats, helps clean and fillet fish, repairs equipment and does whatever else is needed.
It’s here where the wooded trees dance in the wind and kiss the lake, and 22 furnished cabins dot the land. The camp serves Veterans and active-duty of all eras seeking physical and mental healing, or a chance to reconnect with family after deployments. The free week provides lodging, all meals, a library, craft shop and more.
The camp started in 1925 when the American Legion bought 300 acres of land and opened it to Veterans recovering from World War I.
“A lot has changed since then, but a lot remains the same,” said Kevin Moshea, camp director. “What we know now to what we knew then has changed. Back then it was for Veterans with physical disabilities. Maybe they were missing a leg or an eye. Now we know such much more about the need to heal from mental and emotional wounds. We talk a lot up here about those wounds and traumatic conditions you can’t see.
“Back in ’25, this guy who came up with this was smart enough to look beyond the hospital and the doctors, and how a camp in the Northwoods could heal. It’s the only one of its kind. The core mission has always been the same – we’re a place of rest and recuperation for the ill, injured and disabled Veteran. It’s a place to call their own.”
Camp American Legion is open to any Wisconsin Veteran and their family members who fill out an application and meets a set of medical needs.
There are campfires, boats, camp activities, fishing excursions and even a new playground built last year by volunteer Legionnaires. There’s even a chapel with weekly services.
“It’s really all the amenities of any Northwoods’ resort,” Moshea said. “Camp is just part of the healing process. And anyone who comes up here who sees the smiles and the laughter, they would see how wonderfully it works.”
For Moshea, it’s also home – a perk that comes with the job that sometimes requires 15 hours a day of his attention, making sure campers are housed, fed and taken care of.
“It’s a lot of work maintaining equipment, plowing snow in the winter, repairing things, keeping the camp safe. The good news is I have 60,000 Legionnaires with a lot of skills, and the Army National Guard, that comes up here and does different projects. We always have spring work parties for about two and a half weeks before camp even opens. We couldn’t exist without all the volunteers who care about this place.”
Moshea spent a 30-year career in corporate communications and, looking for something new, answered an ad for camp director in the back of American Legion Magazine.
“I thought maybe the good Lord had something different for me in mind,” he said. “I used to come here as a kid with my dad, so it brought back a lot of memories.”
He is the only full-time employee who lives on the grounds. He’s joined by four seasonal employees who cook and maintain the place, and a handful of volunteers who work throughout the season.
"For most volunteers, it’s mutual,” Moshea said. “They work at camp, and give something positive back to the Vets, and it gives them something positive.”
The camp operates over three full seasons from the first week of May to the first couple days of October. There are special weeks set up for different categories of Veterans throughout the year.
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It started this year with a special camp May 5 to 8 open to the Wisconsin National Guard followed by a morale and teambuilding week for the Coast Guard. Each week offers a special emphasis, whether it’s Diabetes Camp, Blind Rehabilitation or a special week for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans. There are camps special for Korean and Vietnam War Veterans, and another one for Army National Guard families, and plenty more. Each week has a different event. The camp is also open at the same times, throughout the year, to those who complete an application, which requires a doctor’s note.
Moshea’s mission when he started here, he said, was to build partnerships with veteran groups and VA to expand opportunities.
“Each special week is different,” Moshea said. “For the Women Veteran’s Week it is very agenda-driven with time planned out from the time they arrive until they leave with yoga, creative writing and other seminars. Some weeks offer little structure. It just depends.
“Those Veterans who just come up by themselves or with friends, they are free to do whatever they want.”
Besides the fully-furnished cabins, there are five pontoon boats and four smaller boats campers can take on the water. Pochert takes campers out on the water throughout the day.
“It’s the best being on the water,” he said. “I know all the best fishing spots. We don’t always catch stuff, but it’s still fun.”
On a Friday evening, when he takes a group of Veterans out, the oldest is a 90-year-old World War II Veteran who hauls in a few fish.
Pochert gained his sobriety in 2003 after getting treatment at VA. He found out about the camp the first time in 2009 from a friend and they both came up for the week. He qualified based on his ongoing outpatient treatment. There is a strict no-alcohol policy at camp.
“I never wanted to go home,” he laughed. “Kevin let me stay for a couple more weeks the next season. I kept bugging him for a year, filled out a resume and showed him my skillset – not only could I fish and take the boat out, I had carpentry skills and could fix the bicycles. I could really help out around camp. The last two seasons it’s been for the entire camp.
“There’s no place else I’d rather be. I think it’s the beauty and peace. Back home I hear a siren every couple hours. Here it might be every two weeks.”
Now he’s part of the regular crew of full-time employees and volunteers that make the camp special. In return for his work, he gets lodging in one of the cabins and three meals a day.
Each day, the dining bell rings at 8 a.m., noon and 5 p.m., and all Veterans gather in the main lodge for a meal.
Darrell Mittlesteadt, a chef and Vietnam Veteran, says he wishes he knew about Camp American Legion when he came home from combat.
“I didn’t know it was here, but I’m sure it was as awesome then as it is now,” he said. “Some of the folks who come here, they have problems I can’t imagine, but since I was in Vietnam I understand a little of what they’re going through. And everyone here has that same kind of attitude. We don’t put people aside here. We take care of them. I like to come out and talk with them during the meals. I hope they can relax. It’s good for their heart and soul.”
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Mittlesteadt, who is retired, said the job lets him stay active and gets off the couch.
He typically arrives at 5 a.m. each day and starts the morning meal for as many as 80 Veterans.
“This morning it was blueberry pancakes and sausage. Tonight will probably be chicken Kiev. We rotate the menu but might not have the same thing for two or three weeks.
“We really do want to make this place special and let the campers relax and not worry about anything,” he added. “Kevin has done a super job here with all the upgrades, and we’re always busy.”
Darkness soon sets in. Like most nights, there will be a giant campfire and everyone’s invited.
“My favorite time is around 10 at night,” Pochert said. “Everyone’s around the campfire. It’s a quiet time and I go back down to that pier with my lit bobber. I put a minnow on that line and just look up at the stars. On a clear night you see Saturn and the Milky Way.
“It’s Heaven,” he said. “It’s absolutely Heaven.”For more information on Camp American Legion, including special emphasis weeks and applications, call 715-277-2510, or go to: www.wilegion.org .