WASHINGTON — Chuck Geertz made himself the cornerstone for helping other people. From the Army to the Marines to the National Guard to being the founder of the organization Healing at the English River Outfitters (HERO) in 2008, there was no one, especially no veteran, he would leave behind.
Dave Lewis, current president of HERO, said Geertz’s idea for HERO came to him while he was working in the National Guard. Geertz’s job was to connect returning soldiers with the Veterans Affairs (VA) office for counseling. He quickly found out they were not always following through and began driving them to the office himself.
While en route, Geertz would talk to them about their future plans and what he wanted to do when he retired. He explained to them he wanted to start an outfitters where veterans could come together to hunt, fish and gather. After receiving positive feedback and requests to join, he knew he had to follow through.
“What really clenched it was when one of the veterans said, ‘Chuck, all the time I spend inside that office with that counselor doesn’t do me any good compared to sitting with you in the car, sitting and waiting for the appointment and riding back with you,’” Lewis recalled.
He said it’s often hard for veterans to connect with counselors because they do not understand the experiences and the mental battles like another veteran can.
Lewis had been friends with Geertz and knew him from serving together in the guard. Geertz stopped him one day and showed him the layout of the outfitters he was planning. Lewis said there were buildings and sidewalks that went all through the woods to make sure the disabled vets would have access.
Initially Geertz had land on the English River where he intended to build but after speaking with rangers from the Iowa DNR, he was told the area flooded often and would not be suitable, Lewis said. Instead he found 30 acres of land by Sockum Ridge he first rented and eventually was able to purchase.
Five years later, the pair reconnected at the VA building in Cedar Rapids and Geertz showed Lewis what he built, but there were no sidewalks. Lewis said Geertz told him he was able to get a track chair, an all-terrain vehicle that uses tank tracks instead of wheels, to allow the veterans to travel wherever they want.
Lewis said Gertz showed him a picture of a young veteran from upper New York who came down to hunt. The vet had been in an explosion and lost an arm, both legs and the majority of his remaining hand. The vet was put in the track chair, taken into the woods and was able to shoot his first deer; something he never thought he would do.
“When Chuck told me that I was like, ‘I have to be a part of this.’ I was hooked from that day on,” he said.
When the outfitters first started, the group took campers out but have since built a permanent building, a small log cabin and broke ground this summer for a lodge. Lewis said veterans were initially brought out to enjoy the outdoors, but the focus changed once night began to settle in.
“One of the things that confused people is we make a lot of noise about going hunting and fishing and camping, but the real reason we’re there is to get veterans around a campfire,” he said. “The healing that happens (there) is really where our pay off is.”
Lewis said by having the veterans sit together, it creates a safe, comfortable space for them to be able to share their stories if they choose. Many veterans, Lewis feels, want to talk about what they are going through but do not have a person who understands them.
During one of his first hunts, Lewis spoke with a veteran who tried going to a counselor but upon talking about “going outside the wire,” military jargon for leaving a safe space, the counselor did not know what he was talking about. Lewis said the veteran told him that if the counselor was unable to understand what he was saying he did not feel comfortable opening up further. But sitting in the deer blind together, he was able to talk with Lewis who knew exactly what he was talking about.
In addition to the emotional healing HERO provides, Lewis said the organization is able to restore confidence and pride in people as well.
“One of the things we do is help the veteran realize they aren’t as messed up as they think they are,” he said.
Lewis recalled one occasion where volunteers were working together to build a brick wall to surround one of the buildings. Geertz called a veteran he knew that used to be a brick layer and asked him to come out. The veteran initially refused, saying he had been too injured to work but Geertz asked him to come out and be the teacher and instruct the volunteers on what to do.
He said before the mortar was dry the man was out of his chair and began laying the bricks himself. Everyone backed away and left him to build the entire four foot tall, 40 foot long wall himself.
“He gets done and he’s got tears in his eyes as he calls his wife. He said, ‘Honey, you’ll never believe what I just did,’” Lewis recalled.
He said that veteran was just one of six who have been inspired to get back into the workforce through helping out with projects at HERO.
Veterans organizations like this, Lewis said, are crucial to success because on average 20-22 veterans take their own lives daily. He said 14 of those are not being seen by the VA and have no where else to go. He said there are a lot of organizations to choose from but what makes HERO unique is the emphasis on healing.
One of Lewis’s favorite stories was told to him by Geertz about an 80-year-old World War II veteran. One weekend, Geertz had veterans from multiple generations come out to the grounds to spend the day together. The veteran spotted a rifle range set up and asked if he could shoot.
The man was so frail that he could barely walk so Geertz and another volunteer carefully helped the man over and held him up as he lined up his shot. With no warning, he fired and the kickback from the rifle knocked all three onto the ground, he said.
“Wow that was fun. Can I do that again?” the veteran asked once they recovered. Geertz said yes, and the veteran was able to shoot a few more times. Later in the evening they were all sitting around the campfire when the man asked if he could have a beer. His son, standing behind him, gave the OK and they passed him one. Lewis said after taking a sip, he began to open up about his experiences and everyone fell silent.
Three days later Geertz got a phone call from the man’s son.
“Chuck, I have to know what you did to my dad,” Lewis recalled of the conversation. “He said, ‘I have known that man my whole life and I have never known him to sleep through the night. He has slept like a baby since he was with you guys and I want to thank you. I’ve heard stories from my father that I have never heard before.’ Chuck knew he was onto something at that point.”
From then on the campfire became a staple of HERO get-togethers because of the healing the conversations provide, he said. Lewis said Geertz has received letters from at least 60 veterans who told him they are still alive because of what they experienced during the campfire chats. Over the years, the organization has hosted veterans and their families from 40 different states on an average of 400 a year.
In July 2017, HERO held a groundbreaking ceremony for a new lodge that would be a place for veterans and their families to gather when it was too cold to be outside. Lewis said having a fire indoors is just as important as having one outdoors.
On the day of the ceremony, Geertz told The Union there were “no words” for the how he felt about seeing his dream come together so successfully. Less than a month later, Geertz died in a motorcycle accident and would never speak again but the legacy he built would continue to call to veterans for years to come, Lewis said.
On Aug. 19, 2019, Geertz died at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Lewis said former soldiers came from all over to pay their respects, including one who was in the Australian Army during the Vietnam War.
Lewis said there is a big whole in the organization now that Geertz has passed but the board members are determined to honor his legacy with three main priorities: take care of veterans, hold each other accountable and grow HERO. Following his death, Geertz was cremated and some of his ashes were put into the foundation of the building, securing his place eternally for every campfire chat in the future.
“He will always be the cornerstone of HERO,” Lewis said.