Since opening a couple of years ago, dozens of veterans and first responders from all across Canada have camped, hunted, fished, sang karaoke, told stories and shed some tears at a 148-acre property near Caroline, Alta., called the Hoggin Alberta Veterans Ranch.
Edmonton-area veteran Travis Calliou, 60, said sitting around the fire with a beer sharing stories reminds him of the camaraderie he felt in the army.
"You eat and sleep and you go to war with them. You do everything together. That's your family, right? And those guys, I'm going to cry … those guys, that's what you get when you come here," said Calliou, who served in Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry and the Royal Canadian Electrical and Mechanical Engineers.
Calliou has stayed several times and tries to bring other veterans along when he can.
"It's a big family and it's growing and I love seeing it grow," he said.
Even though Calliou served in the military for 10 years, he said it was his time as a volunteer firefighter in B.C. that has left him with haunting memories of death.
"We all have these demons running around," Calliou said.
"[It] never goes away, like, you can close your eyes and if you concentrate on it for like two seconds, it's like you can bring it all back — all the smells, the sounds, everything, whatever was going on."
But he said being able to open up and share those experiences with others who have lived a similar life allows people to feel safe, welcome and accepted.
"We all can kind of console each other and everything just comes back down and then everybody's happy again and everybody's partying and enjoying life and they always want to come back."
Ray McKay and Allan Reid with the Veterans Food Bank of Calgary joined forces to purchase and run the ranch. They first leased the land for a year and then saved up money through donations to purchase it in February.
Since then, with the help of a Veterans Affairs grant, donations, and volunteers, they've worked fast to erect the cabins, install flush toilets and gas lines, spread gravel and design memorial benches. They've also continued to work on a commercial kitchen and conference area.
Hoggin is all volunteer-run, mostly by civilians. All food, accommodations and sometimes fuel needed to get there, are provided free for veterans, first responders and their families.
"Somebody's got to help them, like, really help them," McKay said.
Reid said if it wasn't for volunteers, mostly from Calgary, showing up every week, they wouldn't be anywhere near where they are now.
"We got great volunteers, very dedicated … and they're very loyal and never miss a beat."
Reid and McKay plan to build more cabins, a military museum and a memorial pathway to honour those who've fallen. They expect as word of the ranch continues to spread, demand will continue to grow.
McKay said he often gets a message from guests after they return home saying they didn't know how much they needed that time and space.
"The ranch is therapy, right? And they see it and they feel that they might not know right away, but when they leave here, they know," McKay said.
Calliou said it feels good to have Reid, McKay and all the volunteers looking out for veterans, especially when so many struggle after they get home trying to secure benefits or find work.
"It's just amazing … they all have jobs and lives, but they sure spend a lot of time out here and they do it for us, right, for veterans and first responders," Calliou said.
"And when you see that kind of commitment, knowing that all the money goes into the ranch, that's where it all pays off."