Calm on the Water: Military survivors work through grief at retreat created by North Dakota Airmen

  • Published
  • By Senior Master Sgt. David H Lipp
  • 119th Wing
Five strong women traveled from different parts of the country July 31 - Aug. 4 for a relaxing and rejuvenating retreat experience. It was the end result of a three-year renovation project created by two inspirational members of the North Dakota National Guard for military survivors.

Survivors of Heroes Retreat on Holbrook Farms is an all-expense paid getaway designed for military survivors, widows and families of fallen heroes who have lost their loved ones in combat or training accidents. The experience provides them an opportunity to get away and spend time with people who have gone through similar tragedies.

Husband and wife team -- and fellow North Dakota Air National Guard members -- Lt. Col. Matthew Brancato and Lt. Col. Micaela Brancato provided the relaxing location for the retreat by opening up their five-bedroom home on a 47-acre maple syrup farm on Holbrook Lake, Minn. They have poured themselves into providing an incredible Minnesota lakes experience for the spouses of military members who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

The idea for the retreat began several years ago for the Brancatos. The couple met at the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1998, and was married in July 2000. The seeds were planted when Matt lost a co-worker in his unit while at his first U.S. Air Force assignment to Italy as a young lieutenant. He was asked to help the widow gather her belongings and move, which had a strong impact on his life. Then, Matt's roommate from the Academy was killed in Kabul, Afghanistan, in 2011, and two months later, a good friend of Micaela's from Fargo, North Dakota, Sarah (Ziegler) Merwin, lost her husband after he was killed in an F-16 accident.

Sarah told Matt and Micaela that spending time with her family in the Minnesota lakes country helped her through the grieving process.

"That's when we realized how we wanted to help survivors; by providing a therapeutic place for them to relax at the lakes," said Micaela.

The inspirational couple have had unexpected help from many volunteers for the project.

"People often tell us they want to support the military, but don't know how. This became a vehicle, an avenue, for them to give something back to those who have served their country by helping the survivors and the families of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice," Matt said.

On the first full day of activities in August, the retreat group made a 10-minute drive to neighboring Lake Maud to enjoy some boating activities at Micaela's parents' lake home. There, they enjoyed the use of jet skis and all sorts of water toys, as well as a peaceful sandy beach.

The women who attend the retreat are suffering through various levels of the grieving process. But they also are strong, resilient women and are able to help one another through their hardships.

"I really enjoy the fact that the community came together to do this for us. They want to honor us," said Tami Imlay, whose husband, Capt. Francis D. Imlay, died in an F-15 crash in Southwest Asia on March 28, 2012.

Merwin's (Ziegler) husband, Capt. Eric Ziegler, was killed in an F-16 crash during a training flight near Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. She is an Air Force Academy graduate who served seven years in the U.S. Air Force and was a captain working as an aircraft maintenance officer at the time of her separation from service.

Dana Lyon also is a captain in the U.S. Air Force, an Air Force Academy graduate and a top-level Division I athlete and U.S. Olympic trial javelin thrower. She lost her husband, Capt. David Lyon, on Dec. 27, 2013, when he was struck by a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. They were deployed together in the U.S. Air Force at the time of the tragedy.

"It has been constant chaos in my life since I lost Dave. It's been very hard to pick up the broken pieces of (my) heart," she said.

"It is hard being away from my children for this. They are worried I won't come back," said Imlay, who is now a single mother to a six-year old son and a four-year old daughter. She explains that as a result of having lost one parent, the children are now concerned their remaining parent might also not come back when she leaves them for a trip.

It's a sentiment that is shared by survivor Leigh Giglio, who lost her husband, Capt. Nicholas Giglio, on Oct. 15, 2009, in an F-16 training accident. She also has children ages six and four.

"I am so thankful for all of the volunteers (working with Matt and Micaela) in the community and the military," Giglio said. "Military people really take care of each other, and I am so appreciative of the support."

Many of the women survivors stay connected through a social media site on created to support widows of fallen heroes. The site also has served as a way to share experiences and has contributed greatly in the coordination of the retreat opportunity.

"I'm here with folks that have that shared experiences, who can say, 'this is how I did it, this is how I made it. Hey, be aware this is what's coming up.' We each have a little bit of an identity crisis from losing our husbands. For me it was all I ever knew of love," Lyon said. "It's so good to be around people in such a relaxing environment, who are trying to help without trying to fix things. Let me figure out whatever this loss means for me. I can sit and relax, and if something comes to mind, I can ask them, 'well, how did you deal with this?" she added.

"I am grateful for this experience. It makes me feel like I am not forgotten," said Sonia Cazarez, whose husband U.S. Marine Cpl. Robert Cazarez was killed by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan on March 30, 2012.

"It's a time to relax and rejuvenate ... come with an open mind, and at a very minimum, you're going to have an opportunity to relax and eat great food," Lyon said when asked what she would say to others contemplating the opportunity in the future.

Activities are designed to be spa-like and include paddle boarding, motorized water sports, yoga classes,massages, a pontoon tour of a neighboring lake, dining out at some popular local spots and listening to guest speakers. A professional chef even came in to prepare a nice dinner at the retreat.

"This is one of the neatest teaching experiences yet, just because of the great people and the purpose of the retreat," said paddleboard instructor Jess Stuewe, who led a peaceful paddle boarding and yoga lesson one morning on the glass-like surface of Holbrook Lake.

North Dakota Air National Guard member Lt. Col. Teresa McDonough felt compelled to contribute a pontoon ride on a neighboring lake to enhance the retreat experience. The retreat planners are hoping to host groups of survivors about three times each summer in the future, and would like to add more events and activities.

"There is no pressure for anyone to come here. We just want to offer it up free of charge. We have activities planned, but there are no requirements," Matt said. "They (the survivors) don't have to take part if they don't want to. We just want to provide a relaxing retreat where they can come and connect with others. We want them to feel that this is their home, and they can return if they want. We feel that they have earned that."

"I want to thank the people who are making this retreat possible. There are a lot of survivors out there that could use something like this," Merwin (Ziegler) said.

"These survivors taught me more about strength and resiliency than I could ever imagine," Micaela said. "Since their tragedies, they've been surviving. Holbrook Farms Retreat is a place where they can just take a break from that and 'just be,' knowing that they are not alone and that many people care about them. The focus is not as much about the deceased, but on them."

For more information about Holbrook Farms Retreat, e-mail or visit the website at

Editor's note: No federal endorsement intended or implied. Mention of any private or for profit organizations and or business is strictly for information and news purposes.