Rural Missouri Magazine

Camp Hope
Family honors fallen son’s memory by offering an outdoor respite to those who protect our freedom

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by Jason Jenkins

A large wood carving of the Fallen Soldier Battle Cross stands near the campfire at Camp Hope, which offers wounded warriors an opportunity to get away from their daily routines of doctors and hospitals and instead spend time outdoors. The camp recently completed two new handicapped-accessible cabins to house injured veterans. In three years, the camp has welcomed more than 50 veterans to hunt deer and turkey.

From the moment the old tom first pierced the early morning silence with his deep, raspy gobble, he had Matt Nicodemus’ undivided attention.

A first-time turkey hunter, Matt carefully followed the directions of guide Leonard Byrd, who deftly called back to the gobbler, receiving a resounding retort. The bird was off his roost and on his way.

Leonard positioned Matt against a big oak to break up his silhouette and told him to get ready. The old tom was coming in fast and hard.

Shotgun up and eyes alert, Matt waited as the gobbler topped the ridge and began moving closer, bringing another, younger bird with him. He drummed from behind a fallen tree, sending a shockwave through the rocky, Ozark soil. A few more yelps from Leonard’s mouth call would hopefully lead to the turkey’s final curtain call.

For just a few seconds, the bird stepped out in front of Matt at less than 30 yards. Leonard whispered, “Take the shot,” but it was too late. The gobbler proved why he was still running the woods instead of occupying space in a hunter’s freezer. He quickly turned and headed down the ridge.

Kicking himself for not pulling the trigger, Matt shook his head and smiled.

“Wow, I haven’t had an adrenaline rush like that since Iraq,” he said.

Matt, who lives in Fort Carson, Colo., was one of a handful of wounded warriors to enjoy the opening week of Missouri’s spring turkey season thanks to the efforts of volunteers at Camp Hope, a non-profit organization that provides combat veterans with a no-cost opportunity to get away from the hospital visits and the doctors and instead enjoy a respite outdoors.

“It actually helps in their healing process,” says Will “Mike” White, who founded Camp Hope in 2007 with his wife, Galia. “It makes them feel better about themselves. There’s something about being outside and getting away that helps.”

Camp Hope and its mission of honoring the fallen by healing the wounded was born out of tragedy for the White family. Their son, Pfc. Christopher Neal White, died June 20, 2006, while serving with the U.S. Marines in al-Anbar Province in Iraq. An improvised explosive device, or IED, detonated under the vehicle in which Chris was traveling.

Will “Mike” White and his wife, Galia, stand with a portrait of their son, Christopher Neal White, who was killed by a roadside bomb while serving with the U.S. Marines in Iraq in 2006. To honor their son’s memory, the couple started Camp Hope.

“Chris always wanted to be a Marine, ever since junior high,” says Will, who himself served 12 years active duty in the U.S. Army and now works as a civil service equipment specialist for the Army at Scott Air Force Base in Belleville, Ill. “He waited until he was 22 and then joined up. He got killed at 23, just a couple months before coming home from his first tour.”

Like his father, Chris was an avid outdoorsman who loved to hunt and fish. While hunting deer near Lewistown in northern Missouri in the fall of 2006 — the first hunting season without Chris — Will’s vision for Camp Hope began to emerge.

“What can you say? Your mind does a lot of things while you’re sitting out there in the deer stand,” Will says. “I decided then that I wanted to help the guys that are coming back with one arm or one leg or a brain injury.”

A Missouri native who grew up near De Soto, Will began searching for real estate. Within a few months, he found a 170-acre farm just a short drive outside Farmington that fit the bill, and the Chris Neal Farm was established.

Will took possession of the farm about a year after Chris died, and with the help of friends and family, the farm and the small modular home on it were readied to accommodate injured veterans. The first hunt took place in the fall of 2007 as Camp Hope welcomed soldiers for deer season. A total of six hunts have now been held at the camp — three deer hunts and three turkey hunts — and about 50 soldiers from 12 states have visited.

“We just let the guys have a good time,” explains Will, who was named the 2010 Humanitarian of the Year by the AMVETS Ladies Auxiliary. “We treat them like people, not patients. I think we give them more of a family environment.”

Matt Nicodemus agrees.

Leonard Byrd of Ste. Genevieve attempts to locate a gobbler for Matt Nicodemus, a wounded warrior from Fort Carson, Colo., who spent a week at Camp Hope this spring. Leonard has donated his time the past three turkey seasons.

“It just feels like home,” he says of Camp Hope. “The hometown feeling you get, the people, it’s not always that way with wounded-warrior programs.”

After serving 14 years in the Army, most recently as a reconnaissance scout in Iraq, Matt endured numerous roadside attacks, including four separate catastrophic IED attacks that destroyed the Humvees in which he rode. While other members of his platoon died or were medevaced, Matt continued his tour of duty.

Upon returning to the states, Matt was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and is now medically retired from the military. He says visiting Camp Hope and being around other wounded soldiers who share his experiences allows him to forget about the challenges of his everyday life.

The benefits of the experience extend well beyond the week a soldier may spend at Camp Hope. New friendships are formed and extended support systems are developed. Will recounted the experience of four veterans from Michigan who hunted deer at Camp Hope last fall. Though they all lived within an hour of each other, they had never met.

“Now, they’re back home and they’ve got support for each other,” Will says. “Some of them even make their VA appointments together.”

Thanks to a small army of dedicated volunteers, including family and friends, local labor groups and local and national veteran organizations, Camp Hope is quickly growing. This spring, two of six planned cabins for housing visitors were completed. The AMVETS Riders national organization has made Camp Hope its fundraising project for 2010 and hopes to raise enough money to fund construction of another cabin. Veterans Airlift Command, a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots that provides air transportation to veterans and their families, also has leant support.

“I wasn’t able to serve, so I’m giving back to them for what they’ve done for us,” says hunting guide Leonard Byrd of Ste. Genevieve, who has volunteered the past three turkey seasons. “I enjoy it, being out with the guys. There’s nothing like seeing their faces when those birds come in.”

Community support is the lifeblood of Camp Hope. Potluck meals often include items donated by local residents and organizations, including these gooey butter cake cookies.

In addition to the cabins, a 3,000-square-foot lodge with a kitchen and large gathering space also is in the works.

Will says that while the farm is beautiful, the location is perfect not because of its physical attributes but because of the community support. “Without them, there wouldn’t be a Camp Hope.”

Will’s plans for Camp Hope do not end with six cabins and a lodge in St. Francois County, however. He wants to see other camps spring up across the country where even more soldiers like Matt Nicodemus can find solace and peace. He estimates that there are more than 36,000 wounded combat veterans from the current wars on terrorism.

“Through these gates will pass the heroes of our freedom,” Will says. “Anything that we can do that will help the veterans, that’s what we’re willing to do. That’s why we’re here.”

Learn more about Camp Hope’s efforts online at, by calling 910-599-0640 or by writing to Chris Neal Farm, P.O. Box 52, Farmington, MO 63640.

Rural Missouri | June 2020 Issue

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