MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
There are a lot of programs aimed at helping disabled war veterans and thanking them for their service. A small community in the Black Hills of South Dakota is offering a thank you in the form of a free vacation. Cara Hetland of South Dakota Public Broadcasting tells us more.
CARA HETLAND, BYLINE: It's common for disabled war veterans to be offered a free meal or free admission to a tourist attraction on Veteran's Day, but a free weeklong vacation in the heart of the Black Hills?
Tourists are a big deal here. They pump hundreds of millions of dollars in state coffers. In the summer, hotels and resorts are booked months in advance. Pat Baird isn't quite sure how she first got the idea of building a vacation house for veterans, but credits watching an episode of "Oprah" as inspiration.
PAT BAIRD: And we thought, what can we do to help these families? So we decided to start this project. It wasn't something that we were looking to do, it wasn't something that we knew anything about, but all these people have just become part of the project, and it's just grown into this.
HETLAND: Baird is co-founder of Operation Black Hills Cabin. She and her husband are retired from the Air Force and Air National Guard. The cabin is located just outside of Custer and has a luxury feel to it, but Baird says it's all about nature.
BAIRD: But it feels very rural. And the scenery out the window is hills and trees and more hills and trees.
HETLAND: It's a 1,200 square foot log cabin built by prison inmates with materials paid for by the state. It has vaulted ceilings and wood floors and a big fireplace. Inside, it's painted a warm orange and every furnishing is donated. As we walk through the three-bedroom, two-bathroom cabin, Baird points out some of the amenities.
BAIRD: A couple called and just out of the blue and said that they had a leather living room set that they'd like to donate. Oh, the blinds, the - all the wood blinds in the cabin in every window were donated from a family in honor of their nephew who was killed in the war.
HETLAND: The city of Custer donated the land and there is room here for two more cabins. When families arrive, they're welcomed with a set of souvenir towels and a packet of coupons for food and admission to area attractions.
BAIRD: Pretty much all they have to pay is the transportation to get here.
SECRETARY LARRY ZIMMERMAN: I'm Larry Zimmerman, the secretary of Veterans Affairs.
HETLAND: Operation Black Hills Cabin relies on veteran services officers to help them approve qualified applicants. Zimmerman says what these veterans often need is a way to reconnect with their families, and a week in the magical Black Hills of South Dakota can help with that.
ZIMMERMAN: There's no monetary value you can put on that. And if this home saves one family or one group from having any issues, it's worth it. I think it's going to save dozens and hundreds. So it's worth a lot.
MEGHAN PALMER: My name is Meghan Palmer, and I am the wife of a severely wounded veteran.
HETLAND: Meghan and her husband Jason have been married for about six years. She married him knowing the extent of his war injuries, and the two have spent years dealing with neurologists and therapists. Meghan and Jason Palmer were the first guests of Operation Black Hills Cabin. Meghan says it was their first ever vacation, and they were able to unwind and focus on being a family.
PALMER: Not having to worry about the every-day stressors, you know, of living with a brain injury or living with a disabled soldier. He wasn't Jason soldier, the disabled veteran. He was Jason Palmer, the husband and the father.
HETLAND: The cabin is booked for 10 weeks this summer, and organizers are now taking applications for next year. Pat Baird says she hopes to start constructing a second cabin for veterans and their families soon. For NPR News, I'm Cara Hetland.
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