On the Saturday before Memorial Day, more than 40 combat veterans, family members and volunteers raised a 60-foot flagpole at the entrance to a private outdoor recreational retreat.
It took almost a year to get to that stage, but since July 2020, Operation Patriots: Forward Operating Base (OPFOB) has been fulfilling its mission “to create and foster positive experiences for combat veterans by connecting through outdoor and recreational activities.”
The 268-acre facility in Ridgeland – formerly the Malphrus Oaks Plantation – is the vision of Roy “JR” Brown, Jr., a former U.S. Marine Corps K-9 handler. It’s a place where he hopes other combat veterans like himself will feel comfortable coming to relax, enjoy the outdoor opportunities and, more importantly, feel safe in sharing their stories with others who had similar combat experiences.
“I spent three years in Iraq, and unfortunately I lost more guys to suicide than I did when I was in combat,” said Brown. “Basically, I dealt with my own demons. When I started working with Labs for Liberty, a nonprofit that provides service dogs to primarily the special operations community, that just stirred a passion in me to give back to veterans.”
Brown was diagnosed with PTSD in 2005. He handled both a dope dog and a bomb dog, and while serving with the 1st Battalion, 2nd Marines from 2004 through 2005, he handled a bomb dog in Iraq.
“I was embarrassed. I didn’t want people to know,” he said. “But when we started this whole process, I started sharing my story – some of the things that I’ve dealt with and my demons. I’ve noticed that when I talk to veterans and I share some of my stories and experiences, they feel more enlightened to open up about their own stories because they think, ‘Wow, this guy knows exactly what I’m talking about’,” Brown said.
That realization started Brown thinking about how he could give back. “So, I’m not a trained counselor at all, but I’ve learned that when guys want to talk, just shut the heck up and just let ’em talk,” he said. “They’re not looking for answers. They know I don’t have all the answers for everything. They just want to talk and get it off their chest to somebody they feel comfortable with because they’ve gone through the same things.”
A lot of those experiences are shared around the heart of the OPFOB center: a firepit next to the main barn. It’s been in steady use since last July, but in the 21 days leading up to Memorial Day, volunteers kept the fire going in honor of those 22 veterans a day who take their own lives. Brown said he knew five guys who took their lives in a 13-month span in 2019.
On Memorial Day – the 22nd day – a handful of volunteers carried coals from the firepit to an enormous stack of scrap lumber and dead trees in a large field on the property, and set it ablaze under the watchful eyes of the Ridgeland Fire Department and OPFOB’s growing family.
“The whole concept of OPFOB is try to prevent veteran suicide. One veteran commits suicide every 65 minutes. And also kind of give vets a sanctuary. There is no clinician, no counselor, no doctor,” said Bill Robertson.
It doesn’t matter where or when the vet saw combat.
“It’s the camaraderie, a brotherhood of like-minded individuals in whether it’s my war 50 years ago or the current conflicts. Experienced guys my age are able to help the younger guys get through what they’re going through. We’ve been there,” Robertson said. He retired in 1989 as a U.S. Marine Corps master gunnery sergeant, a career that included a tour in Vietnam.
“I was with the air wing, moving between DaNang, Chu Lai and Nam Phong, Thailand. We were bouncing back and forth between those three, not taking live fire, not having mortars, not walking through the jungle, but basically in support of everybody that was out in the jungle,” he said.
Andrew Harris, an active duty Marine master gunnery sergeant, moved into the same neighborhood as the Browns, and volunteered after learning about the organization.
“We decided to make this place our home, one, for the community and everything that’s around here, and two, for the camaraderie – how everybody cares about each other, and I’m not talking about OPFOB yet,” said Harris.
When he learned about OPFOB, Harris knew he would become involved. “When I was wounded in combat, everybody in my vehicle survived, but they didn’t survive coming home. So, to me this is a very important thing because of the more people we can help,” he said. “Because the clinical side – yes, it works for some people, but it doesn’t work for others. It’s coming around, it’s talking and it’s sharing your stories.”
Brown’s plans began to take root while he traveled to and from Utah pairing service dogs with vets. He and his family were living in New York and had just moved back down here.
“I was stationed down here 20 years ago. I fell in love with the area, my wife went to school at SCAD, and we got married here. My oldest daughter was baptized here,” Brown said. “Every time I’d go out to Utah, I came back feeling refreshed, and my wife was picking up on that.”
When he suggested picking up and moving to Utah, Brown said his wife, Stephanie, had a different idea.
“We’d just moved back down here, just built a house in Bluffton, and I said, ‘Why don’t we move out to Utah?’ And Steph said, ‘Well, let’s pump the brakes on that, but maybe we can figure out a way to do something here more locally’.”
That’s when Ben Kennedy, owner and operator of Brighton Builders LLC, and a parent at their children’s school, joined the effort.
“I knew he was in real estate, and I reached out to Ben almost in tears one day, saying ‘Hey, I want to do something outdoors, maybe 20 acres where I can get guys out to relax’,” said Brown.
Kennedy saw the need.
“He was telling me about his experience when he was a combat veteran and how it affected him, and talking about a bunch of his buddies who unfortunately made a decision to commit suicide because they didn’t have an outlet,” said Kennedy. “JR’s vision was to have a piece of property, so me being in the real estate world and the construction world, I had some ideas of good places. And he and I started brainstorming.”
Once they looked at the Malphrus property, the pair began nearly eight months of negotiations even before starting the nonprofit.
“Because we believed in the project that much that we were willing to buy the property even before we had the nonprofit running, because we knew that we wanted to help combat veterans,” said Kennedy. “My whole family has been in law enforcement and the military. I was prepared to go in to fly Apache helicopters, then I met my now-wife and that changed my trajectory a little bit, but that’s OK. So I’m just thankful to play a little part because now since I didn’t serve, I get to serve.”
Kennedy’s giving back included arranging for Arbor Nature to donate the crane service that helped the volunteers raise the flag pole, an evolution that took about an hour of patient manipulation to ensure the final position was straight.
“We closed on the place in July 2020,” Brown said, noting the timing was in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. “But it was good because not only were the civilian population suffering and struggling, but our veteran population was struggling, getting out of their routines, so to have a place where these guys could just come to, cut loose, be around other like-minded individuals that have gone through the some of the same situations in their life, it was a godsend for all of us, including myself.”
OPFOB is 100% volunteer. There are no members, although there are seven board members and five advisory board members. Every dollar raised stays with the property.
“We primarily want to help our combat veterans, but we don’t say no to anybody. We’re probably half and half combat and regular veterans,” Brown added. “The process right now, you contact us and we get you in touch with one of our guys, get you out here, give you a tour. We like to feel people out because we have a lot of recreational shooting activity. We’re very cognizant with bringing guys out here and putting a gun in their hands, but we’re very safe. We have 12 range safety officers.”
Because of the range, the different facilities already in place, and the size of the property, the gate is locked when no one is present, and only board members have the code.
The range is only one part of the recreational opportunities. The 268 acres include a vineyard; a solar-battery-operated, seven-station skeet range with plans to expand to 13; 20-acre dove field; woods for hunting turkey; a field for training dogs with plans for kennels; four stocked fish ponds; quail woods; 14 deer stands; and a plan for a future lodge where up to eight families can stay for the weekend.
“It’s somewhere the combat vets can come, they can reflect, they can decompress, they can share their story with one of us or with each other. When we come back home (from service), all of a sudden we’re not with our battle buddies anymore and it’s a pretty tough reckoning for some of them,” said Robertson. “Some of them were in such intense combat that being away from that guy that always had their back, it’s a pretty strange thing to them. A lot of them just don’t adapt very well and unfortunately, some of them take their lives as a result of all that stress.”
Families also feel the effect of a veteran’s combat experiences. When the vet returns from deployment, the high tempo of activity slows dramatically, and the focus is completely different. It’s a bit of a culture shock to many.
“We see a different side of everything that they’re going through,” said Stephanie Brown. “They’ve got their façade that they put on for the rest of the public where everything is supposed to be fine, and then there’s home, where you kind of put part of that barrier down. So it’s having the network of spouses where they can get together and talk about what’s going on, because it’s not something that you can talk with somebody that isn’t married to a combat veteran. … It’s being able to talk to somebody else that understands it, and being able to understand that it’s not as abnormal that as you feel like it is in the moment.”
Stephanie hopes to establish a similar support system for families that is currently building for the combat vets in OPFOB.
“We want to have that same support on the family end that we’re giving to the veterans, and having that community and people to lean on when you’re going through the rough times, to be a phone call away,” she said. “So we’re trying to come up with a veterans’ spouses group, hold family days and stuff like that, so bring everyone together and know that it’s a whole unit that we’re working on.”
Branch or length of service doesn’t matter. For Brown, it’s about being available.
“Almost weekly I have veterans come up to me almost in tears about how much it means to them to be able to come out here. At the end of the day, our therapy happens around that bonfire, because whether we’re having a beer or a soda or water, sitting around that fire is where we start talking about things, whether we’re talking about the days from Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan or we’re just talking about life in general now, family issues, spousal issues, business issues – anything,” said Brown. “We’re building that network to build that camaraderie so we can lean on each other when we need each other. We’d love to get as many veterans out as here as much as possible.”
OPFOB is currently listed as a 509(a)(3), a supporting organization which is a charity that carries out exempt purposes by supporting other exempt organizations, in OPFOB’s case – Labs for Liberty, which is a 501(c)(3). It was the fastest way to become a nonprofit while OPFOB was getting established. Paperwork to become a 501(c)(3) in its own right is under way.
For more information, email info@OPFOB.org; write to 198 Okatie Village Drive, Suite 103-335, Okatie, SC 29909; visit opfob.org, or find them at facebook.com/operationpatriotsfob.
Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.