By Shannon Taylor, Associate Editor
Deep in the heart of Springville, Tennessee, 20 minutes outside of Paris on Swor Road, takes you to a gravel driveway leading to a secluded retreat for combat veterans. Five cabins connected by ramps silhouette the stunning landscape — a retreat for combat veterans to get away from the outside world and relax — whether that be fishing, hunting or just to find and make connections with others. Gretchen and Kirk Catherwood are the co-founders of Darkhorse Lodge and Kirk, an Operation Desert Storm Veteran designed and implemented the wheelchair lift on the property.
The couple proposed the idea 11 years ago in 2012 after the loss of their son, Lance Corporal Alec Catherwood, who was killed by Taliban fighters while serving in the 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment, based in Ft. Pendleton, California. Their son’s group was aptly named, “the Darkhorse Unit.” Alec was one of 25 Marines killed in Afghanistan on Oct. 14, 2010, on a mission to rescue another squad under enemy fire. Gretchen said that their son died exactly how he lived: protecting those he cared for. Gretchen said their sons and the others lost were their inspiration for the Lodge and they spent the last decade creating a place for combat veterans to relax, connect and share stories.
After losing their son, the Catherwood’s questioned their purpose, stating, “It felt like the world had ended for us. Nobody should go through this. No one. We’re not meant to bury our siblings; we’re not meant to bury our children.” They later found their purpose in the creation of the Lodge, a 501c3 non-profit that receives no public funding, that will be free of charge to veterans and their families/caregivers one week a year, four times a year. Gretchen stated, “Finding my new purpose in life has given me a reason to get up each morning and face the challenges ahead.”
The network of veterans the Catherwood’s have built over the years have contributed to the building of the Lodge for the last 11 years. The Lodge provides not only a sense of community for veterans and their caregivers, but also emotional support. Gretchen said she noticed when attending remembrance and memorial ceremonies that many combat veterans would say, “That’s the first time I was able to talk about that ….” Gretchen said she thought to herself that of course they were able to talk about it — they were around other combat veterans— and that’s exactly what she hopes this Lodge helps with. To help combat veterans speak freely about their experiences and to create a sense of, not only community and communication, but safety as well.
Each cabin can house up to five veterans at a time, encouraging friendship and a sense of community. Each of the five rooms in the cabins have been aptly named after the 25 Marines whose lives were lost in the Darkhorse Unit.
Gretchen said the Lodge is not just for Marines. “It’s for all combat veterans —men and women from all different branches of service and from any war or conflict.”
“We’re losing 22 veteran’s a day to suicide and nothing about that is okay with me, so our goal is to help bring that number down as much as possible, even if it’s by one it’s worth it,” Gretchen emphasized.
The Lodge will have its grand opening Sept. 23 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. with a ribbon cutting, followed by live music, a pig roast, beverages, snacks and a tour of the facility. A group of Weakley Countians have rallied around the cause and planned a fundraising event where 100 percent of the proceeds go straight to the Lodge project.
The Lodge has an online reservation system on its website, www.darkhorselodge.org. Retreats for 2023 begin Sept. 26 and run through October, Tuesday-Saturday. Retreats will not run from November-January but will begin again in February 2024. The website does not allow a zero-dollar cost to be entered so $1.00 per night will be charged but Gretchen said that the money will be reimbursed. All relevant information can be found on the website and programs will be updated and announced as they are learned. So far hunting, fishing, meat smoking, couples’ weeks, non-combat service veterans’ weeks and even beekeeping are possible options.
“This is too hard — next to burying my son this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but then you wake up the next day and you’re like okay here we go. I don’t honor Alec by giving up,” Gretchen said.