BACK BAY – Magic is real for Lynnette Bukowski. It takes place when people come together around the dinner table and begin to heal. She saw it happen for more than 30 years as the wife of a Navy SEAL. She believes it will happen again at a long wooden table in a Back Bay farmhouse kitchen.
“It’s about connections,” she said during a recent visit. “People coming together and talking around the table. It’s that simple.”
A year ago, the house stood empty. Thirty-five acres of fields and four miles of fencing were overgrown. Acting on her late husband’s vision, Bukowski awaited approval for the non-profit that will power what she named LZ-Grace Warriors Retreat Foundation.
LZ stands for “landing zone.” For years, Steve Bukowski wanted to create a safe place where those in special operations forces can decompress after deployments. The Bukowskis had purchased a 16-acre North Carolina ranch and were in the process of building cabins there when Steve Bukowski died of a heart attack six months after his retirement. That was in June 2010.
Over the course of her husband’s enlistment, crisscrossing the United States seven times and living in four foreign countries, Bukowski learned firsthand about the struggles of those in special operations forces. These revelations often came at the kitchen table.
“The man who left for deployment was not the one who came home,” she said.
It could take weeks for SEALS and their families to readjust. She learned that some can’t. She learned of the devastating effect this can take on their families. Those lessons never left her. She moved to Virginia Beach in 2012 to be closer to her mother and sisters, and she decided to act on her late husband’s dream.
Bukowski’s non-profit approval came through just weeks before she closed on the new property, one day shy of the fourth anniversary of her husband’s death. She and two of her adult children, Sheri and Aaron, moved in ten days later. It was her 23rd move in 36 years.
Support began through connections in the SEAL community, which Bukowski calls her family. Word spread through social media to print and broadcast news. Fundraising efforts grew online. Volunteers showed up by the dozens.
One Saturday this past month, Bukowski’s sisters, Diane Van Campen and Nancy Watters, and her daughter, Sheri, worked over plates stacked with cookies, aluminum pans filled with cupcakes, and the remnants of a meal large enough for 30 people.
“We weren’t sure what to plan for,” Watters said. “You should have seen it last time.”
Agreement rose from either side of the table, mumbled around grilled burgers, hot dogs and baked beans, from a retired SEAL commander and a group of city firefighters. One had his visiting father in tow.
“When I heard about this place in October or November, I knew I was going to do this,” said volunteer Joshua S. Xenakis, a Beach fire captain assigned to Station 8. “It’s a way of giving back. I sent out an email, and the response was immediate and overwhelming.”
Firefighters have come monthly since January in numbers up to 40. They have arrived with tools, trucks and heavy equipment. Their labor transformed the abandoned farm into a trim and functional respite for what they call their “brothers” in military service.
“Firefighters call each other brother like the SEALS and special operations people do,” Xenakis said. “While what we do is nothing like what they do, we’re here doing this because we get it. This is our way of saying thank you.”
That’s how it’s been with a number of folks since Bukowski first reached out about trying to complete what her husband had wanted to accomplish. The Bukowskis’ 2010 idea for a country respite reflected a small-scale version of what top military officials have discussed in recent years.
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In a 2012 statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee, then Special Operations Forces Commander Adm. William McRaven shared the results of a study conducted among more than 8,000 service members and their spouses from 55 different special operations forces units stationed in the U.S. and overseas. The results, he said, prompted him to transition the study into to a task force, implementing a holistic approach to address the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing of special operators and their families.
It didn’t matter whether the service members remained on active duty or had transitioned to civilian life.
What mattered was the toll of their service.
In 2013, McRaven discusssed issues with which Bukowski had become vicariously familiar as the wife of a career SEAL.
“Last year, we eclipsed the highest suicide rate we’ve ever had,” McRaven said, “and frankly we’re on track right now to eclipse that. That in and of itself is not an indicator of the force, but it is absolutely something that you have to pay close attention to. When you look at the indictors in terms of depressions, and domestic abuse, and marriages breaking up, none of the trend lines are good.”
Defense officials have begun working over the last several years with government and civilian agencies to address the needs of elite fighters and those who have served in combat.
Bukowski, meanwhile, has relied on her years of experience to offer an important home front comfort.
She learned that one of the ways of beginning to cope was talking around the dinner table with others who had been there with her husband. After deployments, she’d cook for them. They’d eat, drift into the living room and talk to each other for hours.
“Not about their jobs,” Bukowski said. “Just talking. Just being together, just guys talking, BS-ing. Beginning to do normal things again.”
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For now, it’s about the little things for Bukowski and some of her volunteers who understand the rigors of combat and the stress of coming home.
“It’s about the land,” said Matt Miller, a retired SEAL commander who served for 33 years. He has become a fixture at the budding retreat, coordinating and undertaking gritty outdoor tasks up to six days a week, often with his wife, Nanette. She, too, is a retired Navy commander.
After lunch, Miller and a handful of firefighters raked stray vines into one of two smoldering 20-foot circles of burned brush that had stood over ten feet high that morning. He gestures toward paddocks and the property line, now cleared of years of untended growth.
“You come out here, and you work hard,” Miller said. “I go home and I sleep at night.”
After 33 years as a SEAL, Miller said, he tried the corporate world for a while, but it didn’t work for him. Coming to LZ-Grace, he said, does.
“It’s just a place to come and hang out.”
Exactly Bukowski’s point. Larger institutions may cover the bigger issues of returning fighting forces. She hopes handle the little things that help tough guys unwind – a place to eat well and relax in the country.
When work on the grounds is completed, Bukowski said she will accept referrals from chaplains and military mental health professionals, from all special operations forces. With adequate funding and a permitted annex of additional rooms to the main farmhouse, she wants to open her farm in the late fall.
The only things Bukowski will insist on, she said, are meals together at the table and sitting by the fire pit at night. It’s about getting people connected, so they can start to open up.
“This is not a facility,” Bukowski said. “This is my home.”
Above the double glass doors beside the dining table, a small inscription reads, “love never fails.” Bukowski said that’s what it’s about for her.
LZ-Grace began with her personal love story, and she has been stunned by the level of giving others have shared from the heart to make it happen.
She’s working to continue doing what she has always done – caring for hard-core fighters, one home-cooked meal, one conversation at a time, extending her philosophy now to teams of volunteers.
“No one gets anything for coming here and helping out,” she said, at the end of another day of work. “All I do is feed them.”