RUSKIN, Fla. — Nine years ago, down an unassuming and almost hidden road in Ruskin, sorrow met serenity. That's where both got a mutual introduction from Kelly Kowall.
In 2012, with less than $500 in her bank account, Kowall bought a rundown, drug-infested, five-acre patch of land on the banks of the Little Manatee River and somehow cobbled together a piece of paradise called "My Warrior's Place."
Kowall describes it as "a place where people understand what they have gone through because they've been there and done that."
My Warrior's Place has turned into a waterside retreat for veterans with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder like Chris Fugitt, who admits this healing community may have saved his life.
"I guess it's like being reborn almost and reliving yourself," says the five-tour veteran.
At My Warrior's Place, there is no counseling or medication regiment. Therapy is whatever mother nature provides, from boating trips out to the Bay to fishing, kayaking or even just a quiet place to meditate and reflect.
"When you talk to a veteran who lost somebody on a battlefield, they can't help but tear up when they talk about it because that's family to them, and I just wanted to help them," says Kowall.
It was here Kowall also realized she could help Gold Star Families.
Kris Hager had a son named Joshua. Joshua was an Army Ranger when he was killed. Fourteen years later, and it still hurts when Kris Hager talks about that day.
"The week before Josh was killed, my phone rang, and he said, 'Hi dad, I just called to say I love you,' Six days before he was killed," recalls Hager.
As a parent, no therapy makes that pain go away. Hager says the community at My Warrior's Place helps soften the blow. Sometimes it's just knowing you're not alone.
"The best part about Gold Star fathers and families is we never have to say anything," says Hager.
Kowall estimates 10,000 visitors have come and stayed on these grounds in the past nine years, from veterans to first responders to Gold Star and Blue Star families.
Just steps away from the water, it offers 10 private rooms and a few RV pads to folks who want to stay for a day or a week. Many say it's the best night's sleep they've had in years.
"There is something magical here. You can't really put your finger on it, but you feel it. And pictures can't capture it," says Kowall.
It's a recurring theme you hear at My Warrior's Place when you stop by and ask the folks staying here what they think of this retreat.
It's the very thing that brings Toni and Craig Gross here. Not only to volunteer but to stay overnight from time to time. They lost their son Frank in an IED explosion just 21 days after he deployed.
Craig admits that for years his therapy was at the bottom of a bottle.
"It was kind of like wearing a mask over my face. Happy on the outside but totally crushed on the inside. Toni was a little bit more solid than I was, and thank God that she was because she is what brought me through it," says Gross.
The couple credit My Warrior's Place with getting them to the good place they're at in their lives now.
Al Carter is with the Florida Department of Veterans Affairs, and he says you won't find many holistic-based retreats like it for veterans.
"Not all medicine is physical. Sometimes you need a place where you can get away and have a place of respite. Where you can relax and recharge and regenerate," says Carter.
It's hard not to get caught up in the relaxed vibe here. It's hard to imagine that a place of such peace and healing came from a place of so much pain.
In September of 2009, Kelly Kowall's son, Corey, went out on a mission in Afghanistan to clear IEDs. Unfortunately, that day, he and the medic on his Humvee would not come home. Kowall speaks fondly of the son she lost way too early in life.
"He knew what he wanted to do in life from the very beginning. He wanted to be an Airborne Ranger. He knew he wanted to jump out of planes. He used to practice jumping out of trees," recalls Kowall with a smile on her face.
Corey Kowall always told his mom he wanted to save lives. Joining the fight in Afghanistan was the way he knew how. After he died, Kelly says Corey came to her in several dreams. She says he told her to build a place for healing.
Completely run by volunteers, My Warrior's Place has slowly come together with donations from private donors to big businesses who believe in what is happening down in Ruskin.
"They're never going to know the amount of lives that their donations have saved. I've been lucky to see it. When you have somebody come up and say I wouldn't be here today. I would be one of the 22; it makes all the hard work worthwhile," says Kowall referring to the statistic that shows 22 veterans die by suicide every day in America.
In many ways, through his mother, Corey Kowall is still saving lives even after his death.
"It just gave me a purpose that I didn't have that I was lacking in my life and now I realize how fortunate I am to have fallen into a purpose. One that is meaningful to so many people," says Kowall.
My Warrior's Place is also in the process of building a boarding facility and dog park for service dogs for those times when circumstances arise, which would necessitate a temporary separation of a handler from their dog. A private donor is right now offering to match all donations dollar-for-dollar, up to $10,000 for the facility.
If you would like to help, you can click here, text MSDP to 44944 or scan this QR code to donate.