Gasconade Veterans Memorial Campground – An inside look into why one retired Army MP is dedicating his retirement years to give back to disabled veterans, despite being disabled himself.
The sound of a dead tree falling fills your ears as it comes crashing down, clouding the air with a thick yellow dust that stretches for hundreds of feet in all directions. Volunteers work feverishly, clearing brush, hammering nails, and removing trash, dirt, mud, and debris. The last of a new roof is almost completed for one of the largest buildings, and a new flag pole will soon be on its way.
All this is happening on a river front property, deep in the Mark Twain National Forest by Fort Leonard Wood, MO, that will soon become the host to campers of all ages, but specifically catering to those with disabilities. The owner gives directions on what needs to be done. He can only stand by because, due to both injury and disability, he is unable to do the work himself. Meet Daniel Stoner, and welcome to the Gasconade Veterans Memorial Campground.
Recently retired from the United States Army after 28 years of service, SFC (Ret.) Stoner is a disabled combat veteran who wants nothing more than to give back. After his retirement, he bought this land specifically for that purpose, knowing he wanted to help other disabled veterans. Veterans’ giving back to veterans has become an increasingly common sight these days, and at the cost of their service, a sight that comes with a tough back story to hear.
On 18 November, 2007, while deployed to Combat Outpost (COP) Callahan, Stoner was injured during an indirect fire attack when an incoming round blew him approximately 15 feet through the air. At the time he had no idea how injured he was, so he continued to assist with the triage of other wounded Soldiers and assisted in the reconsolidation of the defense for the outpost. Unable to get out of bed the next morning due to the extreme pain in his back and left shoulder area, he went to the Battalion Aid Station for treatment and was given muscle relaxers and pain medications, and returned to duty. “For 14 months I continued to deal with my injuries in a combat zone, to include limited mobility and frequent migraine headaches,” Stoner said. Upon completing that combat tour, he returned to Germany where he continued to seek treatment for his symptoms, underwent physical therapy, and was not properly diagnosed for his injuries until receiving an MRI at Lanstuhl Regional Medical Center.
“As the imaging was completed, and I was being removed from the chamber, I was greeted by a neurosurgeon who informed me that I had sustained an injury to my cervical vertebrae that would require immediate surgery,” said Stoner. “I requested a delay of one day so that I could let my wife know what was going on with my injuries.” Stoner’s wife was in Argentina finishing college at the time, and he knew she would be concerned. After surgery for an Anterior Discectomy, and fusion of the C5 and C6 vertebra, Stoner awoke in recovery thinking all went well. However, not soon after being examined in the recovery ward, he had the sensation of ice water being poured over his entire body. “I attempted to raise my hand to reach for the call switch that would alert the nurse and realized that I could not move my arms. I instead shouted for the nurse, and when she came over, I informed her that I thought I was paralyzed. She looked at me rather sternly and said ‘Honey, that is not anything to joke about.’ To which I replied ‘Ma’am, I am not joking.’”
To this day he carries a scar on each foot where the nurse stabbed him with a large needle to check for responsiveness. He underwent an emergency procedure to repair a leaking artery that was causing the bone graphs in his neck to press into his spinal cord. “When I awoke the second time in the recovery ward, the first thing that I did was to raise my hands to see if I could use my arms. I was relieved to be able to lift my arms, so I then tried lifting my feet and was again blessed with having the use of all my limbs after such a terrifying close call with paralysis,” Stoner reflects. With a serious look on his face, he then goes on, “I decide then and there, that I would dedicate myself to helping others who were not as fortunate as me.”
He started by volunteering with the Veterans of Foreign Wars and helping the local community in any way possible. Soon after, he was afforded the chance to attend a class at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Psychology to become one of the Army’s first Resiliency Instructors for a new program aimed at helping Soldiers deal with the stresses of combat and reintegration after their return. But when it was finally determined that he would no longer be cleared back to full duty, he made the decision to retire. “I knew that I wanted to keep serving in some way, to give back for the simple blessing of being able to just walk, but I was unsure how I was going to do that,” admits Stoner. He underwent a second surgery on his spine to help with the pain, and while recovering again, he found a small piece of property on the Gasconade River that was the former site of an equestrian campground. That is when the idea struck him to open the campground again for people with disabilities.
At first the campground was going to be strictly for Soldiers recovering from injuries and disabled Veterans, however, the more he thought about the idea, the more he remembered his own recovery. The short period that he spent in a wheel chair made him realize that a campground truly accessible to handicapped people was needed by more than just the Veteran community. Thus the Elysium Project, LLC was formed. Stoner purchased the river front property in the spring of 2013 to build the campground and formed the subsidiary, Gasconade Veterans Memorial Campground as a non-profit. But the dream was not without further hardship.
Money was tight, as military retirement pay only stretches so far – In fact, not far at all – and volunteers were sometimes hard to come by. Things looked good at first, until the river flooded; destroying most of Stoners personal possessions and the buildings he had been working to repair were once again destroyed. On the 9th of November, 2013, in an effort to fix a leaking roof on the main building, Stoner fell over 15 feet off the roof and ended up in the hospital. He had injured his shoulder and broke three ribs, which created a Pneumothorax condition that was crushing his heart. After a week, he was finally released from the hospital.
Flash forward to today, and volunteers are once again offering up their Saturday’s and Sunday’s to aid this worthy cause. Stoner looks on as he gives directions, talks to people, and mentors those in need all at the same time. Just last year his arm was in a sling and he was unable to complete the work himself, yet today his spirit is higher than it has ever been. He is deeply touched by the dedication of others to help make this dream become a reality.
Gasconade Veterans Memorial Campground may still be in the works, but the grounds are fully open today for visitors and those wishing to stay. And while GVMC is only the starting point in a much larger Services and Rehabilitation picture envisioned for the future, the current plan to provide the first sanctuary, rest and relaxation, and services/rehabilitation location is still a ways from finished. “We are still under construction, and have had some setbacks, but these things will not stop us,” Stoner says. “Regardless of what happens, this will become a reality” he states with a sense of clarity. And as anyone would agree, a reality – that with plenty of help – will be well worth it.
Gasconade Veterans Memorial Campground is a subsidiary of the Elysium Project, LLC
Information for Contact and Scheduling:
38520 Fairview Rd.,
Richland, MO 65556
Phone: (417) 453-6161