Northwest News

Mother of fallen soldier builds Olympic Peninsula retreat for grieving families

A heavy door creaks and Betsy Schultz steps into a century-old cottage littered with workbenches and plywood.

She looks past the construction and sees a home where grieving families of fallen military service members will come to heal.

Here is the oversize kitchen where widows and their children may one day gather amid pleasant tastes and smells to share memories of their loved ones.

Here is the deck with a soothing view of Olympic National Park’s craggy peaks.

And here is the fireplace where Schultz will commemorate the day a bomb in Afghanistan killed her son, Capt. Joseph Schultz. A gold star and a paw print will be etched in the brickwork, a tribute to one of the soldiers and the military canine who died alongside the Green Beret from Sacramento, California.

This home, she says, will belong to the 6,835 families who’ve lost someone in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, including the 316 fallen service members who served at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

“They’re going to come and make bonds that are going to last forever,” said Schultz, 64.

For four years, she has labored to turn the bed and breakfast she used to run as a business into a foundation that will host five-day retreats for grieving military families. She’s pursued her vision to create the Captain Joseph House despite personal setbacks, such as a stroke and heart surgery.

Now, she sees the project as almost done. All she needs is a little more money, a little more help from the Vietnam veterans who’ve been working day in and day out, one more connection to make her vision real.

“I have faith in Betsy, and she’s not giving up,” said Jeff Winston, 67, a lifelong friend from Carmichael, California, who is the treasurer of the nonprofit that Schultz established for her endeavor.

Schultz’s plan is to give mourning families room to relax, clear their heads and focus on their families without worrying about bills, errands and the rest of their daily routines.

While her guests visit, she hopes they’ll make connections with other families who’ve confronted the same losses. Each trip would put two or three families in the home simultaneously.

“They’ll come together for a week and leave here differently,” said Army Lt. Col. Celia FlorCruz, who has embraced the project since she and her husband, Maj. Gen. Kenneth Dahl of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, met Schultz last year.

“We all feel pain and loss,” FlorCruz said. “You’ve got to figure out a way to fill yourself back up.”

Schultz calls the project the Captain Joseph House as a memorial to the 36-year-old son she lost on May 29, 2011, when an explosion killed him and two fellow Green Berets in Central Afghanistan.

He was a remarkable person by any measure. He worked as an aide in former California Gov. Gray Davis’ administration after graduating from the University of Oregon, then went on to work in the State Department.

Joseph Schultz joined the Army after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, serving in Iraq with 82ndAirborne Division and later in Afghanistan with the elite Green Berets of the 3rd Special Forces Group.

His mother’s plan came to her in the early days after his death. She felt comforted by other mourning families she met at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, where she traveled to meet her son’s remains.

“It’s a healing thing to talk with families” about the shared experience of losing a loved one in combat, Betsy Schultz said.

She felt she could make a space to nurture those relationships in the underused bed and breakfast she’d bought a decade earlier after ending a career in social work in Sacramento.

The inn isn’t open yet, but she already has some proof that her concept can work. Two young widows spent a week with her in her home at the northern tip of the Olympic Peninsula as a trial-run in 2013. Both found the experience Schultz hoped to offer.

“When I went to (Schultz’s) house, we talked all night. They understood. Over here if I talk to someone, it’s like they don’t get it,” said Thania Sayne , 33, of Reno, Nevada. Her husband, Sgt. Timothy Sayne, was killed in Afghanistan four years ago.

Sayne met Schultz at a Memorial Day service in 2012 at Arlington National Cemetery. Schultz brought her to Port Angeles to spend a week with Elisa Apolinar, whose husband, Sgt. 1st Class Martin Apolinar, died in the attack that killed Schultz’s son.

Both widows have young children, and both were pregnant with their second sons when their husbands were killed.

“We had a lot in common in that sense, but everyone has a different way of grieving,” said Apolinar, who has remained close to the Special Forces community since her husband’s death.

Over the week, the widows took in the Puget Sound scenery and shared stories while their children played. They’re still in touch two years later.

Apolinar left believing other families would benefit from the same opportunity.

“It’s going to be an enriching experience for families,” Apolinar, 32, said. “It’s a memorable experience, something that will take you out of your comfort zone and help you live life again.”

Back at the house, Schultz is staying busy building momentum for the foundation.

Dahl and FlorCruz, the Lewis-McChord major general and lieutenant colonel, hosted a Port Angeles auction in March that brought in $59,000 for the nonprofit. Schultz raised almost $6,000 more with a marathon-style event in which she camped out in the gazebo on the property on a cold winter night.

“She is a tough person, a very resilient leader,” Dahl said. “She has turned her loss into something positive.”

Schultz has enlisted support from across Port Angeles. A local car dealer donated vans she can use to pick up her guests from the airport. Boy Scouts and veterans have volunteered their labor.

A soldier who grew up in town often makes time to work on the project, saying he’s glad to know the retreat will be there for his family if they ever need it.

“It’s been a community barn-raising, it truly has,” said Kathy Charlton, president of the Captain Joseph House Foundation. She’s been friends with Schultz since Schultz moved to Port Angeles.

Schultz’s home sits across the street from her old bed and breakfast. American flags are displayed on her porch and her living room is filled with mementos from her son’s military career. Even the pillows and blankets on her couch have a military theme. They’re decorated with the insignia and motto of Army Special Forces, a Latin phrase that means “to free the oppressed.”

She acknowledges she can get carried away working on the foundation. Sometimes, she must make herself stay away from her phone so she can give herself what she wants to provide others: time to mourn.

“It’s that grief when your dreams have just been smashed,” she said. “I’m not grieving for what I had with Joseph. I had 36 years with Joseph. The stuff that I’m grieving is the future I had dreamed of. I had dreamed of trips we’d take, of children he’d have. You lose that hope you had with that person.

“Your life as you know it has been dashed. Those families are grieving because their lives have been dashed. Hopefully we’ll help move them forward.”