Member Spotlight: Craig Russell, SS American Memorial

By by Michael Miller  ·  Sep 20, 2023

Why SMI? It has a 'spiritual connotation,' says Craig Russell

A 101-acre ranch known as the SS American Memorial is serving as a place of mental, emotional, and spiritual healing for veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces thanks to Craig and Nancy Russell.

The Lazy-U Ranch, along the Guadalupe River near Seguin, Texas, has been in Nancy’s family for generations. It had long been open to the Russells’ friends and family members for gatherings and respite.

Craig, a U.S. Navy veteran who served in the submarine service at Pearl Harbor, started inviting his shipmates to the ranch in 2000 for a Fourth of July Memorial event honoring sacrifices made by members of the Armed Forces through U.S. history.

“It went from a big dance and barbecue to a full-blown memorial service with all the military traditions,” Craig said.

By 2007, as many as 700 people were showing up for the event, geared to educate a nation struggling to retain respect for its past.

Then, in 2010, Craig approached Brooke Army Medical Center officials at Fort Sam Houston. The center is regarded as the No. 1 burn hospital in the world for military personnel. It also houses the Intrepid Center, which helps amputees to be fitted with prostheses and to use them.

“We opened up our homestead to them, a 30-minute bus ride away,” Craig said.

The idea was for the wounded to take advantage of the open air, allowing them to fish, get in a kayak, or just be outdoors.

The Guadalupe River in central Texas meanders through the Lazy-U Ranch, home to the SS American Memorial.

The Guadalupe River in central Texas meanders through the Lazy-U Ranch, home to the SS American Memorial. (Supplied photo)

“They latched onto it,” Craig said. “Until 2019, it was pretty much ground zero for all of the wounded, combat medic trainees, and staff from area bases. It was where they came for healing and respite. It was where the wounded learned how to walk and use the prostheses. Then the rest of the bases in the area got involved and it spread.”

Chaplains started bringing groups out for spiritual encouragement. Other visitors kept coming, and “I woke up one day in 2019 and realized we had hosted a little over 24,000 active-duty soldiers during the war,” Craig said.

By “the war,” he meant the then-ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, which the U.S. left in 2021.

Building the memorial

Supporters began sending unsolicited money in the early 2010s, which made it possible to renovate an existing building on the ranch into a memorial. Craig says it is the only “private, living war memorial in the United States.”

The small building, which can accommodate only 40 people at a time, is filled with commissioned artwork featuring such grand depictions as Jesus coming to do battle on a white stallion as depicted in Revelation, as well as events from America’s past.

But also housed are pieces of military memorabilia “so rare that you wouldn’t even find them in the Smithsonian,” Craig said.

And then there are the photos.

“We have a side where all the loved ones of deceased soldiers place their loved ones’ pictures,” he said. “Area chaplains lead memorial services for groups if they want them to.

“This whole building … it’s hard to explain. It is so overpowering that I’ve seen people fall to their knees. I’ve even seen chaplains cry uncontrollably. There’s a feeling of God’s grace that literally changes hearts and minds.”

An Army group stands in front of the SS American Memorial building at the Lazy-U Ranch near Seguin, Texas.

An Army group stands in front of the SS American Memorial building at the Lazy-U Ranch near Seguin, Texas. (Supplied photo)

Craig said that during the height of the war, chaplains reported back to him that after groups had visited the ranch, the chapel on base was at capacity. They were performing three or four baptisms a month and attributed it all to the five hours spent at the ranch.

Staying open

While COVID-19 put a damper on military organizations’ use of the grounds, others made free use of it.

Craig’s shipmates and fellow Memorial board members had served on submarines. They were aware of the damage isolation can do to people. So, they opened the ranch to groups “openly and free of charge.”

The ranch hosted everything. “Churches that wanted to hold services or funerals that couldn’t be held at the bases to fundraisers for veterans’ organizations fighting for their very existence because they were closed to youth groups, to weddings, to any and everything they wanted to do, they held it out here,” Craig said. “Every week, every weekend, there were events with live music, events of every shape, fashion, and form. They held it the way they wanted to, mask or no mask, freely and in freedom. We did not hinder them. And we never had a single claim of the COVID virus coming from our place—serving over 3,000 Americans.”

Since the pandemic, military groups have been the slowest to return to the ranch. Still, Craig said, the ranch is gearing up for returning veterans “that are retiring as we speak or are out of the service, bringing back their troubles from this longest war.”

With the rapid evacuation of Afghanistan marking the end of U.S. active conflicts, many veterans face the challenge of returning to civilian life.

“It’s still a long war,” Craig said.

Returning to civilian life has changed drastically over the decades, Craig said. While there was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) for those returning from earlier wars, the breakdown in the family structure and the degradation of churches from an essential position in a community’s framework has made it much harder for returning soldiers to transition to civilian life.

Craig blames one main factor for making that difficult transition even harder: the removal of God from public life.

“Veterans returning from World War II came back to family units that grew up around the table hearing the Bible or went to church, and they became the greatest generation because of that,” Craig said.

While they struggled, “they realized they had Someone greater than them giving them spiritual guidance to deal with it.”

The soldiers of today returning to civilian life had never been exposed to solid family or church structures.

Craig said that it’s essential that faith-based resources like their ranch be made available for therapeutic purposes.

Unfolding future

The future of SS American Memorial is already unfolding. Forty-five acres have been added to the original 20, turning the property into the SS American Memorial Park.

“This will encompass walking trails and other features,” Craig said. “The development team comprises landscape architects, engineers, contractors, mental health and wellness specialists, and artists. All of us are devout Christians. The scope and framework of the development and planning committee are wrapped entirely around the idea of God’s grace.

“It will be the first of its kind in the United States, a park design that has been built with the spiritual aspect in every facet of the planning, drawing, and building.”

That will even come down to emphasizing the Trinity in its design.

Craig Russell with his wife, Nancy, right, and their daughter, Savanna.

Craig Russell with his wife, Nancy, right, and their daughter, Savanna. (Supplied photo)

“The power of three is being utilized in the buildings, the breakout centers, even down to the flora,” Craig said. “We are reforesting with native pine trees for year-round therapeutical greenery and replanting with native grasses.

“We are literally building God’s outdoor chapel in the entire 65-acre park.”

Also being built is an outdoor learning center, which will be made with a backdrop of a free-standing flagpole, a minimum of 150 feet tall, with a minimum 40-by-80-foot flag.

“You will be able to hear it blowing in the wind at almost any location within the park,” Craig said.

He also hopes that the park is utilized by families who have lost a parent to war or divorce or are single-parent families.

“I really feel this is going to be the next dimension to the location, tunneling down literally to the child level, bringing a whole other level of service,” Craig said. “I look forward to what the next steppingstone is. I didn’t plan it, but I know God did.”

Michael Miller is editor of the Samaritan Ministries newsletter.