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Camp Better America Executive Director of Community Affairs Gene Sweeney, co-founder Kathleen Gagg and Gold Coast Eagle Distributing owner Col. John Saputo are hoping the community will join their efforts to support military families.
East County Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011 7 years ago

Returning the Salute

by: Pam Eubanks Senior Editor

LAKEWOOD RANCH — Kathleen Gagg has no “Plan B.”

In the board room at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, Gagg flips open a journal and pours over the contents until she finds just the right spot — an entry about when she first spoke with Kimberly Burleson.
From that moment on, she knew it was going to happen.

“I just felt this is something I needed to do as an American to return the salute to (our military),” Gagg says. “I know in my heart anything is possible.”

Gagg and Burleson, who lives in Texas, launched Camp Better America, a nonprofit that focuses on the reconnection process for military families after a soldier comes home from war. The women, along with a core team of volunteers, have been working to educate military families about the program and to set up camps.

“We’re all Americans,” Gagg says. “We have our (military) fighting for our freedom. As civilians, we need to stand up and return the salute. Some of them are sacrificing their lives. This is where my passion is.”

Gagg, who moved to the East County last summer, will introduce her organization to the community next week as Camp Better America hosts its first East County “Return the Salute” fundraiser from 6-9 p.m., March 24, at Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, 7051 Wireless Court, Lakewood Ranch. Tickets for the event cost $150 per couple or $100 per individual and include heavy hors’ doeuvres, beer and ale, a silent auction with items such as a half-day cruise on a yacht and a week in Aruba, as well as a chance to hear motivational speaker Krish Dhanam and a musical performances by Daniel Rodriguez.

“We’re looking for people to come to support us,” Gagg says. “It’s important to get the community involved. We’ve initiated a program that addresses the need of our servicemen and women.

“Many of us forget (our military is fighting for us),” she says. “We need to stand together in unity and give
back to our military families.”

Individuals who cannot attend, still can make donations to the cause or purchase a ticket to be given to a military veteran so he or she does not have to pay to attend.

Proceeds from the event will pay for the next group of military families to attend Camp Better America.

Although many soldiers integrate back into civilian life well, some would rather face death than the uncertainties of being home.

“They know how to deal with death, not the stress of coming home,” says Gene Sweeney, executive director of veterans affairs for Camp Better America. “It gives them that feeling of how to reach out, how to be intimate again.”

The Lakewood Ranch resident and veteran noted the experience also will help soldiers deal with post-traumatic stress and other issues stemming from their time overseas.

“I know exactly what Kathleen is trying to do to help these warriors come back, adjust and get (started again),” says Gold Coast Eagle owner and veteran Col. John Saputo, who donated the use of his facility for the cause. “This war on terrorism has been going on for 10 years now and has the highest deployment rate the military has had in modern times. It’s a tremendous amount of strain on your family. I’ve been there myself.

“When you come back to civilian life, you are searching for that adrenaline (rush),” Saputo says. “This is a preventative measure for military families.”

At Camp Better America, military families are welcomed to a resort-like location for a chance to relax together and reconnect while also being exposed to leading experts in the fields of mental, financial, emotional and physical well-being.

“We’re really trying to (work on their) emotional, spiritual, mental and physical well-being,” Gagg says. “It’s the whole entire family (that suffers).”

Although no date has been set for the next Camp Better America, applications already have piled in, Gagg says.

Camp Better America hosted its first camp for military families in May 2010 at a private ranch in Texas.

Since then, Gagg and Burleson have been traveling to posts and military bases educating soldiers about the program and also to businesses to raise support and funds for the programs.

“We’ve been inundated with applications (for the camp),” Gagg says. “It makes me sad we can’t accommodate all these families.”

The U.S. Army opened Shades of Green, resort for servicemen and women on Disney Property in Orlando, for the camp but not for free.

Camp Better America organizers had to postpone a camp planned for December to raise funds for the program and now are working to determine how best to use the funds raised at next week’s benefit.

Right now, Gagg is working to get the next Camp Better America under way and will focus on serving soldiers who recently have been deployed or have served on multiple deployments.

Eventually, she hopes to have camps running simultaneously at locations throughout the country and even to have camps to address specific issues such as a camp for wounded warriors and a camp for Vietnam veterans.

Gagg also hopes to secure grants and other forms of funding to offer more camps and gain the support of businesses and the community.

The organization, too, hopes to establish a permanent Camp Better America site in Lakewood Ranch or surrounding area as well as one in Texas.

Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].

Return the Salute Fundraiser
WHEN: 6-9 p.m., March 24
WHERE: Gold Coast Eagle Distributing, 7051 Wireless Court, Lakewood Ranch
TICKETS: $150 per couple or $100 per individual to attend; donations also accepted.
RSVP: By March 21 to [email protected] or (973) 670-3940 or visit

Kathleen and her husband, Mike, were top real estate agents in their hometown in New Jersey when Kathleen was first introduced to the non-profit sector more than a decade ago.

At that time, their son’s 3-year-old classmate died from a congenital heart defect.

“I felt horrible, being a mom,” Kathleen says.

She reached out, and joined that mother’s efforts to start a foundation to raise awareness about the condition, eventually becoming the organization’s executive director. Little did Gagg know her own daughter would be diagnosed with the same condition just a few months later.

“I felt education was really great thing,” she says.

After three years, Kathleen decided to step down from the organization. About a year later, however, she joined the efforts of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Dr. Andy Baldwin to help him launch his new nonprofit, Got Your Back Network, an organization that provides grief counseling, job training, tutoring and other services to the families of fallen soldiers.

“That’s how I got into it,” Gagg says of her interest in helping the military. “I went to events and galas and interacted not just with fallen soldiers’ families but with active military and saw the issues and challenges our military families were facing.”

For example, a general had lost one son to suicide and another to the war. Military couples were getting divorced. Soldiers were coming home with wounds not visible to the eye — wounds that sometimes ended in depression or even suicide.

Gagg, who still serves as Got Your Back’s executive director, began asking Baldwin if he wanted Got Your Back to address the issues of soldiers returning from war.

“I had to do something, but he really wanted to focus on the children, which was fine,” Gagg says.
But in July 2009, Gagg was introduced to Kimberly Burleson, who shared her vision for helping the families of soldiers returning from war.

“We were living parallel lives,” Gagg says. “God has had His hand on this from the beginning. We knew from the first time we talked this is what we were doing.”

The women began laying the foundations for Camp Better America, and the organization gained its 501(c)3 status in early 2010.

Gagg and her family moved to the East County from New Jersey in July. They have three children — Brooke, Bryan and Brianne.

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