The mournful call of a loon rises from Holbrook Lake and echoes up the hill toward a sprawling home. A small group of women, enjoying a bonfire that helps cut the chill from the evening air, pauses to appreciate the sounds and sights that envelop them.
Here, in the heart of Minnesota lake country, military spouses who have lost loved ones in combat or training tragedies gather for a weekend of peace, understanding and, ultimately, healing.
Their conversations — whether around the campfire, by the beach or at the dinner table — can range from painful memories to funny stories to ongoing life challenges. During their stay, the widows experience the full spectrum of emotions — joy, anger, grief, hope and frustration. And that’s just fine — Holbrook Farms Retreat is a safe place for these survivors to be honest and vulnerable.
The Best Medicine
Lt. Col. Matt Brancato ’99 and Lt. Col. Micaela (Bentson) Brancato ’00 launched this lakeside retreat center in 2014, a full five years before they planned to open the facility to visitors. They kicked things off by hosting five military widows for a long weekend. Now in its fourth season, the “Survivors of Heroes Retreat” serves a handful of widows each year. Unfortunately, there’s a long waiting list of survivors who want to attend future retreats.
“We didn’t realize how much need there was out there,” Matt admits.
The survivor retreats are designed to pamper participants with boat rides, massages, home-cooked meals, movie nights and helpful speakers. There’s an agenda of events and recreational opportunities built into each weekend, but attendees can pick and choose what they want to participate in.
If they want to stay up late and talk, it’s no problem. Sleep until noon? No one will question that choice.
The only requirement — do what helps you relax and feel rejuvenated.
“This beautiful setting, just by itself, promotes peace and healing and a de-stressing,” explains Sarah (Kotte Ziegler) Merwin ’03, a first-year retreat participant and now the retreat coordinator. “We want people to feel a weight come off their shoulders when they walk through our door.”
“I feel like our life mission is to serve those who serve,” Matt adds. “We wanted to find a way to give back to those who are supporting our country and to those who have made the ultimate sacrifice.”
While serving with the North Dakota Air Guard in 2010, the Brancatos were first introduced to the 47-acre maple sugar farm that would later become Holbrook Farms Retreat. The couple three times rejected the idea of buying the property.
“But there was just a higher power that said this place was going to be something someday,” Micaela recalls. “That some day, we thought, was going to be when we retired from the military.”
The couple purchased the cabin and surrounding property and started renovations on the facilities, not knowing how they would eventually utilize the lakefront setting in their post-Air Force careers.
A few months later, in April 2011, Matt was notified that his fellow Class of 1999 classmate — David Brodeur — had been shot and killed in Afghanistan. Two months after that, in June 2011, fellow USAFA graduate Eric Ziegler ’03 died in an F-16 crash.
“I’ll never forget the year that Gen. (Stephen) Lorenz was speaking at Arnold Hall to the Cadet Wing, and he said … due to the nature of our profession we’re not all going to make it to our 20-year class reunion,” Micaela recalls. “That stuck in my brain. Unfortunately, he was right.”
“These two funerals, back to back, made us feel helpless,” Matt admits. “We wanted to help, but we didn’t know how. We didn’t know what these families needed.”
Later, when Micaela had a chance to talk with Ziegler’s widow, Sarah Kotte Ziegler ’03, the idea for Holbrook Farms Retreat started to take root. When asked what helped her most during that season of grief, Sarah told the Brancatos that it was time at the lake.
“That’s when the light bulb turned on,” Matt recalls. “We always felt this land had a healing property to it. It’s so peaceful out here. We thought this would be the perfect venue to host ‘Survivors of Heroes’ retreats.”
For the first time in five years, I’ve felt a sense of belonging again. Thank you for creating a space for us to connect, share, cry, laugh, grow and heal. I feel refreshed, energized and restored.Guestbook entry written by a retreat attendee
An Income Stream
Around that same time, the Brancatos launched a home-based business — Rodan+Fields skincare products — to gain some business experience and generate a little extra income. All of that extra money made from the business has been pumped back into Holbrook Farms Retreat.
“What we liked about the business model was we didn’t have to give up what we were already doing with our military careers,” says Matt, who is now squadron commander in the California Air National Guard at March Air Reserve Base. “What we were surprised at is there’s a lot of need out there for quality skincare, so the business started taking off. As soon as the income started coming in, we then could dream bigger.”
With the infusion of extra income, the Brancatos expanded their retreat facility and completed several upgrades.
Then they opted to give their “Survivors of Heroes” idea a trial run in 2014. They were able to buy new furniture and beds to accommodate all the guests. Landscaping and other projects also were funded.
The local community helped the Brancatos get up and running, volunteering their time to prepare the property for the military widows.
“The idea was it was going to be a test year and we’d shut it down until we retired in 2020 or beyond,” says Micaela, who is the 163rd Aircraft Maintenance commander at March ARB. “But we had such a great outpouring from the survivors, we kept it going.”
The number of survivors served grew steadily over the first three years of the retreat — from five the first year to 13 in 2016. But in 2017, the retreat staff decided it should cap the number at 10 new participants and two returning participants who serve as facilitators.
“We didn’t want to grow too big too fast and then lose our intimate atmosphere,” Matt explains. “We wanted to keep it a close-knit, friendly atmosphere here.”
Holbrook Farms Retreat added a second retreat this year, inviting alumni from previous seasons back to the lake. During their return visit, the alums worked on several projects in preparation for the summer’s “Survivors of Heroes” gathering.
Shortly before conducting their first retreat, the Brancatos reconnected with Gen. (Ret.) Mark Welsh ’76 — the commandant of cadets at USAFA when they were cadets — and Mrs. Welsh, while attending the TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) annual gala in Washington, D.C. During this conversation, Gen. Welsh — then chief of staff of the Air Force — encouraged their efforts and asked for more information.
“We couldn’t believe with everything the Chief of Staff has on his plate that he would have time,” Matt smiles. But Welsh immediately followed up afterwards and continued to follow the progress of the farm.
That brief communication among fellow Academy grads eventually led to a job at the Pentagon for Micaela — working for the chief of staff’s Commander’s Action Group (CAG). Matt landed a spot with the National Guard Bureau at Joint Base Andrews.
The Brancatos say their time in D.C. was fortuitous because they learned a lot about establishing a nonprofit, raising funds and making connections that will help Holbrook Farms Retreat grow and thrive.
“We’re just following the path,” Matt explains. “We keep going where God needs us and wherever we feel called to be.”
They also have been able to connect with fellow USAFA grads who have helped get the retreat center established and upgraded.
“That’s also something we learned at the Academy,” Matt says. “No one can do anything alone. It takes a big team and it also takes a vision.”
In the future, the Brancatos hope to expand the gatherings offered at Holbrook Farms Retreat. The vision is to open up the facilities to wounded warriors, PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) survivors, firemen, police, and widows of other community heroes who have died in the line of duty.
“This place is meant to be shared,” Micaela says.
When not hosting retreats, Holbrook Farms is on the Vacation Rentals By Owner (VRBO) website and available for short- and long-term stays. The money generated by rentals helps to pay for facility improvements and retreat costs.
“That has brought some great income to help take care of the property,” Micaela says. “We’d love for everybody to come stay with us on Holbrook Lake. We’d love for people to come and help give of their time, talent and resources. Or to let us know if they know of any survivors who could come and stay with us.”
Sarah (Kotte Ziegler) Merwin ’03 was one of the first survivors to attend a Holbrook gathering. Her first husband, Eric “Dirk” Ziegler ’03, died in an airplane crash.
She now serves as the vice president of the Holbrook Farms Retreat Board of Directors and is also the Survivors of Heroes Retreat coordinator.
An aircraft maintenance officer during her Air Force career, Merwin was a stay-at-home mom after her daughter, Anna, was born. The family was stationed at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas when Eric’s aircraft went down during one of his final training flights.
“My experience helped me to understand the dangers of our profession,” Sarah recalls. “We had both deployed to Iraq previously, so we had had the conversations and had wills drawn up. But no one is prepared for anything like this.”
Sarah had tremendous support from family members and the Air Force community, so the healing progressed. But the grief she experienced from her loss never completely disappeared.
That’s when her Air Force friend and fellow Fargo, North Dakota, native, Micaela, called and asked if she’d like to be part of the Holbrook planning team and attend the first retreat. Being able to spent time with other survivors helped Sarah discover a community of women who can support each other year round.
“It filled a need I didn’t know I had,” she explains. “I thought I was very well supported. I thought I was healing and progressing … and I was. But this specific setting and the groups of people who come provide another level of support that no one else can.”
Sarah now is thrilled to be part of the team that serves and pampers survivors at each retreat.
“I just love being a part of this mission,” she says. “For me, there’s definitely been a lot of healing.”
Feedback from all of the retreat participants proves that Holbrook is a big help to those who attend.
“The survivors who come feel this sense of community,” she says. “We can have very easy conversations. We don’t necessarily dwell on the past, but focus on what we’ve learned and how we’ve healed and how we can continue to help each other through really uncharted territory.”
To stay connected after the retreats, alums can join a private Facebook page. The attendees also regularly talk via phone to share joys and concerns throughout the year.
All Emotions Matter
When Robyn Schornak attended her first retreat in 2015, she admits she had a lot of unresolved emotions penned up inside.
It had been almost a decade since she’d lost her husband — Army Staff Sgt. Christopher Schornak — due to an insurgent ambush in Iraq.
“That was the worst day of my life,” she recalls. “I had lost my very best friend in the world. I was a 24-year-old widow with a two-and-a-half-year-old son.”
Robyn attended several memorial services in honor of her husband, but found the experiences too difficult.
“Every time we went to one of those, it felt like ripping open a wound that wasn’t healing,” she remembers. “It was just so hard.”
She would eventually decide to avoid anything to do with military, shielding her son and herself from painful memories.
“So for eight years, my son and I did not participate in anything that was offered to us,” she says. “But we were both anxiety ridden, and had no support system outside of our family. It was just so difficult for people to understand why sometimes I just wanted to cry or sometimes I just wanted to be angry. Or, even though I was in a relationship with someone new, I still loved my husband. Your average friend doesn’t understand that.”
In 2013, Robyn would attend her first widows’ retreat put on by TAPS. It turned out to be a great experience.
“I remember sitting among all these ladies and thinking … why on earth did it take me so long to do this?”
She would enroll her son in a retreat offered through A Soldier’s Child Foundation.
Robyn would later get connected with Holbrook Farms Retreat. She would attend the retreat with one of her friends — another survivor.
“I remember we were coming up the drive and thinking this place is gorgeous,” she says. “You can’t even get in the front door before you can see the beauty that is here.”
An early highlight from the weekend was having Matt Brancato carry each person’s luggage to their bedroom.
“A lot of us don’t have someone at home to do things for us,” Robyn says. “Having someone to do that stuff was just phenomenal. Plus every little detail was perfect — the bed covers, the flowers, the paintings on the wall. They had towels out for everyone.”
By the time the weekend was over, Robyn says strong friendships were formed and an emotional connection with Holbrook was established.
“The day I had to leave was just so sad,” she says. “I was brokenhearted to leave, because I knew I was going back to the stress of everyday life. I was going back to that weight that all of us carry in our daily lives.”
When she made it home, Robyn immediately called fellow survivors and encouraged them to apply for the next season. This past summer, Robyn returned to Holbrook twice — once for the alumni retreat and a second time to serve as a facilitator at the “Survivors of Heroes” retreat.
These days, she thoroughly enjoys the opportunity to pamper fellow survivors during the weekend gatherings and to lend a sympathetic ear to those who are hurting.
“We can’t change our circumstances and what has happened to us,” she explains. “But we know that when I walk through these doors, we can go down to the dock and put our feet in the water, and not have to worry about anything.”
Lt. Col. Jen (Schiessler) Fuller ’99, who is currently assigned as a speechwriter at the Pentagon, served as a volunteer at this summer’s retreat. She heard about Holbrook while working with Micaela in D.C.
“It was just a phenomenal program that I really wanted to become involved in,” Fuller says. “I decided that this was a valuable way to give back. I hope I can help facilitate some healing and some down time for these survivors.”
A former C-130 pilot, Fuller was assigned a number of jobs at Holbrook during the long weekend — including meal preparation, cleanup and odd jobs.
“There’s nothing more valuable than giving your time,” she says. “Unfortunately, we’ll be involved in conflicts for a very long time, so there will always be a need for this kind of support. It’s invaluable to be able to give back to those who have given so much to us.”
From July 20 to 24, 2017, a total of 12 women attended the fourth Survivors of Heroes retreat — 10 new attendees from Texas, Florida, Massachusetts, Washington, D.C., and Minnesota and two facilitators and retreat alums from Tennessee and Texas.
According to Sarah, the entire weekend turned out perfectly, including the special speakers who talked about family finances and “Healing Through Writing” — a helpful journaling class.
“We all end the weekend physically and emotionally exhausted, but filled up more than ever,” she says. “I come out of the weekend still more healed and more positive than before.
“Fortunately, but unfortunately, word has spread and more women are hearing about our retreat. The last two years we have not been able to accommodate everyone who has been interested. We have a waitlist, but we hope that we can grow and shrink that list to zero.”
For more information about Holbrook Farms Retreat and the Survivors of Heroes Retreats, visit www.holbrookfarmsmn.com.