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Calm on the Water: Military survivors work through grief at retreat created by North Dakota Airmen

From left to right, Sonia Cazarez, Tami Imlay and Leigh Giglio practice maneuvering paddleboards Aug. 1, 2014, on the calm water of Holbrook Lake, Minn. The women were participated in the retreat for widows of U.S. military members who lost their lives while serving their country. The Holbrook Farms Retreat is hosted by husband and wife Lt. Cols. Matthew and Micaela Brancato, both assigned to the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp)

From left to right, Sonia Cazarez, Tami Imlay and Leigh Giglio practice maneuvering paddleboards Aug. 1, 2014, on the calm water of Holbrook Lake, Minn. The women were participated in the retreat for widows of U.S. military members who lost their lives while serving their country. The Holbrook Farms Retreat is hosted by husband and wife Lt. Cols. Matthew and Micaela Brancato, both assigned to the North Dakota Air National Guard’s 119th Wing. (U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Master Sgt. David H. Lipp)

HOLBROOK, MINN. (AFNS) -- Five strong women traveled from different parts of the country July 31 - Aug. 4 for a relaxing and rejuvenating retreat experience, the end result of a three-year renovation project created by two inspirational members of the North Dakota Air National Guard for military survivors.

Survivors of Heroes Retreat on Holbrook Farms is an all-expense paid getaway designed for military survivors, widows and families of fallen heroes who have lost their loved ones in combat or training accidents. The experience provides them an opportunity to get away and spend time with people who have gone through similar tragedies.

Husband and wife team -- and fellow North Dakota ANG members -- Lt. Cols. Matthew and Micaela Brancato provided the relaxing location for the retreat by opening up their five-bedroom home on a 47-acre maple syrup farm on Holbrook Lake, Minnesota. Both have poured themselves into providing a Minnesota lakes experience for the spouses of military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The idea for the retreat began several years ago. The Brancatos met at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1998, and married in July 2000. When Matt, as a young lieutenant and at his first assignment to Italy, lost a co-worker in his unit, he was asked to help the widow gather her belongings and move, which had a strong impact on his life.

In 2011, Matt's roommate from the Academy was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, and two months later, a good friend of Micaela's from Fargo, North Dakota, Sarah (Ziegler) Merwin, lost her husband after he was killed in an F-16 Fighting Falcon accident.

Merwin told the Brancatos that spending time with her family in the Minnesota lakes country helped her through the grieving process.

"That's when we realized how we wanted to help survivors; by providing a therapeutic place for them to relax at the lakes," Micaela said.

The couple have had unexpected help from many volunteers for the project.

"People often tell us they want to support the military, but don't know how,” Matt said. “This became a vehicle, an avenue, for them to give something back to those who have served their country by helping the survivors and the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice."

The women who attended the retreat are suffering through various levels of the grieving process.

"I really enjoy the fact that the community came together to do this for us. They want to honor us," said Tami Imlay, whose husband, Capt. Francis D. Imlay, died in an F-15 Eagle crash March 28, 2012, in Southwest Asia.

Capt. Dana Lyon, an Academy graduate, lost her husband, Capt. David Lyon, Dec. 27, 2013, when he was struck by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. They were deployed together during the time of the tragedy.

"It has been constant chaos in my life since I lost Dave. It's been very hard to pick up the broken pieces of (my) heart," she said.

Many of the women survivors stay connected through a social media site pages created to support widows of fallen heroes. The site also has served as a way to share experiences and has contributed greatly in the coordination of the retreat opportunity.

"I'm here with folks that have that shared experiences, who can say, 'This is how I did it, this is how I made it. Hey, be aware this is what's coming up.' We each have a little bit of an identity crisis from losing our husbands,” Lyon said. “For me it was all I ever knew of love. It's so good to be around people in such a relaxing environment, who are trying to help without trying to fix things. Let me figure out whatever this loss means for me. I can sit and relax, and if something comes to mind, I can ask them, 'Well, how did you deal with this?"

Activities were designed to be spa-like and include paddle boarding, motorized water sports, yoga classes, massages, a pontoon tour of a neighboring lake, dining out at some popular local spots and listening to guest speakers.

"I am grateful for this experience. It makes me feel like I am not forgotten," said Sonia Cazarez, whose husband, U.S. Marine Cpl. Robert Cazarez, was killed March 30, 2012, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan.

The Brancatos also took away a lot more than they expected.

"These survivors taught me more about strength and resiliency than I could ever imagine," Micaela said. "Since their tragedies, they've been surviving. Holbrook Farms Retreat is a place where they can just take a break from that and 'just be,' knowing that they are not alone and that many people care about them. The focus is not as much about the deceased, but on them."

Editor's note: No federal endorsement intended or implied. Mention of any private or for profit organizations and or business is strictly for information and news purposes.

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