Kelly Kowall dreamed in vivid color about her son, SPC Corey Kowall, after the 20-year-old Army paratrooper was killed in Afghanistan in 2009 on his way to assist a convoy.
“He came to me every night, five nights in a row, and told me to buy a boat,” she said.
At first, Kowall and her mom laughed about the strange, specific and expensive request; but eventually, Kowall realized she couldn’t resist her son’s wishes. She found herself buying a boat and taking military veterans and families of fallen soldiers out for rides.
Kowall quickly discovered the healing magic of the wind and water on troubled souls.
“Some of the veterans were still struggling with the loss of their brothers in arms from 50-plus years ago,” Kowall said. “I felt like they were struggling even more than I was with the death of my son, and I realized they never really had a chance to grieve.”
That realization is what inspired Kowall to create My Warrior’s Place, a retreat center just outside her home near Tampa, Florida, dedicated to her son’s memory. Kowall wanted a quiet place where people could relax and reflect or talk through their grief, if needed.
“It’s the perfect piece of property, with little pocket areas around where people can just sit and listen to the water or the sounds of dog tags or flags flapping,” she said.
The center also is equipped with boats, kayaks, fishing poles, canoes, bicycles, and a long list of other activities for families to enjoy.
Today, the center looks nothing like the property Kowall first acquired.
“When I say the ‘Sanford and Son’ junkyard looked better than this when we bought it, it’s an understatement,” she said.
Kowall and other volunteers spent weeks of 8- and 10-hour days cleaning up debris. She admits it would have been easier to find a location that was in better shape; and yet, she wouldn’t change a thing.
“Love built this,” she explained. “A pristine place wouldn’t have the same feeling that this place does because so much love went into it.”
My Warrior’s Place depends on donations to keep the doors open and prices low.
“It’s very cost-effective for a private on a private’s pay or someone on disability income,” Kowall said. “If somebody can’t afford it, we go out and raise the funds for their stay.
“We have no deep pockets,” Kowall told Growing Bolder. “We solely exist on small donations, like $5 or $20, from people who believe in what we’re doing. And once in a while, a veteran’s organization will raise a few thousand dollars at a fundraiser.”
Despite the hours and years of difficult, unpaid work, Kowall said it has been worth it.
“The payoff is when a veteran comes to me and says, ‘If it wasn’t for this place, I don’t think I’d be here today,’” she said. “That’s the payoff. You can’t put a price on that.”
Kowall has big dreams for the retreat center, including expanding the dog park, building more housing and cottages, and erecting a building to store donated items.
“We never know when we’re going to have a chair break or a stove go out, so having those donated items on site that we can quickly swap out would be wonderful,” Kowall said.
Kowall’s vision is to be the most desired refuge — not only for veterans, but for all military service members, law-enforcement officers, fire fighters, Blue Star families (those with active-duty, immediate family members), Silver Star families (those with a wounded military family member), and Gold Star families (those who lost an immediate family member in conflict).
“My son was so selfless and cared about everyone,” Kowall said. “He gave us his life. If I can just do a small portion of what he did, I’ll be OK.”
To learn more about My Warrior’s Place or to donate, visit www.mywarriorsplace.org.