One nonprofit group is giving soldiers and their families an escape from war and its horror.

And this weekend it will provide the 4-month-old daughter of a New Portland soldier, killed in combat in November, the opportunity to see the ocean for the first time.

The organization, Vetlands Inc., is holding a ceremony Sunday on Spruce Island off the coast of Stonington to honor Army Cpl. Andrew Hutchins, who was killed in eastern Afghanistan. The agency is giving Hutchins’ family and other military members time every year, free of charge, to relax on the getaway island.

“I think it’s awesome. I was really surprised. It’s hard to believe that someone would do all that just for soldiers and their families. I still can’t believe it,” said Heather Hutchins, 22, on Thursday. The wife of the late soldier spoke while holding her daughter, Allyssa, who never had a chance to meet her father.

More than 150 people are expected to attend the event at 4 p.m., which will also include the dedication of a granite memorial for Andrew Hutchins, who died at age 20. Gov. Paul LePage is scheduled to speak.

“I didn’t know him before, but the concept is to honor him as we would honor any person who has died in service,” said Colie O’Donnell, who runs Vetlands with his wife, Nora. It is the first event Vetlands has planned for the island.

The couple owns 80-acre Spruce Island, which has stone houses that sleep up to 18 people. The O’Donnells are giving the island to veterans or the families of deceased veterans for at least two weeks each year to use as a place of respite. They do the same with a property on Shenandoah Mountain in West Virginia.

The idea is to provide a peaceful place where veterans, current military members and families of those who died in combat can rest and heal emotionally, Colie O’Donnell said.

“Certainly for the service they’ve given that benefits all of us, they deserve more than what they get from the military,” he said. “We owe them much more than just ‘thank you.'”

Heather Hutchins said having a place to escape to will be beneficial for her and Allyssa. Her happy baby “has Andrew’s personality; she’s got his eyes, his face shape. She’s got his toes,” she said.

“She gives me a reason to want to try to be around and not just escape everybody,” she said.

While the time since her husband’s death has gotten easier, “it’s not great, and I don’t think it ever will be, but it’s bearable,” she said.

She has received an outpouring of support from people across Maine and the country. A scholarship fund in Andrew Hutchins’ name has about $13,000, she said. Complete strangers send letters and gifts.

“I’m surprised at how much people want to help out someone that they don’t know at all, that they feel like they know because they read about it in the paper or they know a soldier themselves. I can’t believe it,” she said.

Even though her high school sweetheart died while she was pregnant, she said her daughter will know everything about her father. She scrolls through photos on her laptop of her late husband and tells her daughter who he is.

“When she sees his face, I want her to know, ‘that’s my dad,'” she said.

Maybe Allyssa is already beginning to learn. When Heather Hutchins takes her to visit her father’s gravestone, she sits and stares at it. “She won’t look at the camera. She’ll stare at the stone the whole time,” she said.

Other family members are expected to attend Sunday’s event, in addition to friends. Andrew Hutchins’ mother is Robin Norwood, of Waltham; his father is Jeffrey Hutchins, of Leeds.

Adrienne Bennett, press secretary for LePage, confirmed the governor will attend the event. State representatives and staff of some of the Congressional delegation are also expected to attend.

Vetlands seeks donations of land anywhere in the U.S., in addition to donations of time in vacation homes for the benefit of veterans, O’Donnell said. The organization receives only private donations and has about 50 members.

The concept for it started after 9/11, O’Donnell said. “There are sort of two Americas. There’s an America that serves in the military, and there’s an America that knows nothing about the military,” he said. “I just think that should change.”

More information is available at

Erin Rhoda — 612-2368

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