When her husband was killed in action on Jan. 27, 2009, leaving Nicole Johnson with two children, she said she wanted to do something.
She said her in-laws — late Marine Sgt. Trevor Johnson’s parents, Tom and Colleen Johnson — also wanted to take action.
“Instead of sitting around feeling sorry for ourselves, we thought, ‘What can we do?’” Johnson said.
They decided to battle PTSD — debilitating to veterans and often leading to suicide — with FOB Johnson (Forward Operating Base Johnson), an all-inclusive resort. The most recent study (in 2014) from the Department of Veterans Affairs said about 20 veterans die from suicide daily, making up 18% of suicide deaths among U.S. adults — even though they comprise 8.5% of the population.
The ranch retreat in Bozeman, Mont., is meant to honor the late Johnson, while providing a safe haven.
“We’re taking things back to basics,” Johnson said. “It really helps people with PTSD.”
To make it an all-expenses paid retreat, the Johnsons are having an inaugural fundraising event — Hangin’ in the Hangar — from 6 to 9 p.m. on Sept. 29 at the Long Beach Airport. The event includes music, food, drinks, and silent and live auctions. Johnson said the Long Beach Fire Department would be donating to the auction.
Johnson said a limited number of tickets are available and not many spots are left, but donations are always welcome. They can be made at www.fobjohnson.com.
It all started last year, when Johnson’s in-laws used $1.2 million of their own money from selling their 1,800-acre cattle ranch, she said, to buy the 22-acre resort. Her in-laws also have been using their own money to pay for veterans, she said, which costs about $1,800 per person (mostly due to airfare). But, she said she asked them to stop until they received their nonprofit status — which they did in April. None of the family takes a salary.
Since April, they’ve received $10,000 from word-of-mouth, she said, and another $5,000 from event registrants. She hopes the fundraiser will provide another $10,000 to $20,000.
The money provides veterans’ a four- to five-day stay at the ranch’s guesthouse or main lodge, airfare included. They get their own bed and bath and can roam the grounds as they please, she said. There are horses, dogs and cats; meals and activities, including fishing, four-wheeling, target shooting, hiking, camping, horseshoeing, snowboarding/skiing, rafting, zip lining, pool/foosball/ping pong, hot springs/swimming, caring for animals and corn hole games. Gear for the activities is provided. Chiropractic and acupuncture care also is on hand. Additionally, the Johnsons are planning to expand the barn/shop for mechanical and woodcraft projects, as well as provide a better horse shelter.
Besides money, many people have provided pro-bono services, she said, such as a graphic designer, who donated the logo, or the veteran who started Lift for the 22, allowing veterans to use various gyms nationwide for free.
“People have been very supportive,” Johnson said. “The support’s just been incredible.”
One of those who said he benefited from the resort is Steven Mackler. The Marine sergeant served four years, deploying twice — once to Iraq and another to Afghanistan, getting struck several times by enemy fire. He also said he saw 13 of his comrades die. He trained with the late Johnson, he said, but was never abroad with him.
When he returned to his Ohio home and got out in 2011, he said he had trouble readjusting and tried committing suicide. He had tried every type of therapy and drug, he said, before a buddy told him about FOB Johnson.
“I didn’t expect it to be so tranquil and peaceful,” Mackler said. “What they’re doing out there is better than any therapy or drug.”
The veterans aren’t alone, Johnson said. They are paired with someone they worked/served with or their family tags along.
“At some retreats, they don’t get the healing, the connection,” Johnson said. “But here, they go out and have this comfort level. They know our intentions are true.”
Mackler said he agreed with Johnson and it helped the family was familiar with Marine life.
“Being alone is the hardest thing in the world for us (veterans),” Mackler said. “There, I felt so relaxed and welcomed. They don’t bring out a big group of people.”
The help doesn’t end once veterans leave, as with many retreats. Johnson said they’ve networked with other nonprofits nationwide to provide whatever services each needs and keep in touch with them.
“After they come out, we’re not just done with them,” Johnson said. “We offer (job) training once they are home.”
After the resort visit, Mackler said he’s finding his way again. He’ll start studying environmental science next spring, he said.
“They’re saving people,” he said. “That’s the mission of FOB Johnson.”
For more information on FOB Johnson, visit www.fobjohnson.com.
Emily Thornton can be reached at email@example.com.