By Dianne Sudbrock
Tucked away in the hills of southwestern St. Charles County is a special place some have come to call “hallowed ground” – not because of any particular religious affiliation, but because life-changing experiences happen there.
In 2010, a group of seven U.S. Marine veterans got together and decided they needed to do something to help veterans who were struggling with life after discharge. Those struggles could be anything from unemployment, to coping with survivor’s guilt, to dealing with life-altering physical and psychological conditions caused from their military experience.
The result was the formation of the FOCUS Marines Foundation (FMF) – a non-profit, volunteer led organization that helps struggling veterans understand how they can use Marine/military values and training to address and overcome problems in life after service. While the organization takes veterans (male and female) from all branches of the military, the program utilizes the Marine motto, Semper Fidelis (“always faithful”) and the Marine values of courage, honor and commitment. Those values can be defined simply as “acting despite fear, doing the right thing when it’s hardest to do, and duty-bound.”
By zeroing in on that Marine identity, FOCUS Marines has developed a very successful program. Norm Harriman, Vice President of Development, explained, “Most of the vets that come to us know they need help. They’ve reached a point in their lives where they know they are in a downward spiral and they want to make changes to improve their lives, but they don’t know how to break the cycle. We help them look at their life through a different lens and see how the skills and values they learned in the military can be an asset in their everyday lives.”
The FMF program consists of a week-long session held on a private estate that provides a safe, secure and serene environment – away from outside distractions – where the participants can reflect and hopefully begin a healing process that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. The sessions are offered four times per year.
During the first two days of the session, life coaches help the participants identify and define the issues that have been holding them back. It could be relationship problems – at home with family or at work. It could be injury-related physical or psychological challenges, PTSD, traumatic brain injury, etc.
Once the issues are identified, the participants are asked to prioritize and narrow things down to one or two of the most important problems. Then they set goals and work with team leaders and mentors to develop a plan to meet those goals.
The third day is critical, Harriman said. “That’s the day amazing things happen.” After reflecting and isolating problems, the participants are asked to voluntarily talk about their issues. “There’s something very cathartic about that,” Harriman said. “To be in a safe, nonjudgmental, accepting environment, among other vets who can relate to your experiences, and talk about things that you fear, that maybe you are ashamed of, or that have been so painful that maybe you’ve never discussed with anyone else – is very emotional. It’s healing. And I have to tell you, the transformations that happen on that day can be magical. That’s why we call it ‘hallowed ground.’”
The last two days of the week are spent developing tools and skills to reach goals and lead a more productive life. There are classes on employment, education, relationships, finances, and volunteerism. All veterans who go through the program are taught and expected to find a way to give back to their community – to volunteer in some capacity with some organization that is meaningful to them. Harriman said, “We teach them to give back, which helps them get their own self-esteem back.”
That volunteerism has led to one of the biggest keys to FOCUS Marines’ success – the mentors. Mentors are veterans who have previously completed the program and now volunteer to come back and help others. “Their testimony and participation are a huge part of why the program enjoys the success that it does,” said Harriman. The mentors stay with the participants 24-hours a day during the session. They sleep in the bunk house with them, eat with them, and share how the program helped them in their own lives. “The mentors’ personal testimonies are extremely helpful,” he said.
Another huge key to the program’s success is its affiliation with the Navy-Marine Corps Combat Casualty Nurses – visiting nurses who vet candidates for the FOCUS Marine program. Most of the program’s participants are referrals from the Marine Corps Wounded Warrior Regiment (not to be confused with the “Wounded Warrior Project” non-profit organization), the Combat Casualty Nurses, or a past participant. Veterans can also apply on their own via the focusmarines.org website.
The 5-day program is only the beginning, Harriman said. “We help the veterans get started. We give them tools and resources, but they’ve got to do the work. We don’t mother them, but we don’t forget them either.”
Once the 5-day program is done, team leaders follow-up with regular phone calls. There is also a monthly conference call that any past participant can join, as well as a private Facebook page that has been very helpful for people as they go back home and need a place to reach out. “A lot of good things happen on the Facebook page. It’s very therapeutic, and helps build relationships with other vets/graduates,” Harriman said.
“The mentors, our relationship with Combat Casualty Nurses, the on-going follow-up activities, and the volunteerism we encourage are four integral parts of our success. Those four things are what set us apart from other programs.” Harriman said.
There is no charge to veterans who are accepted into the program. The FOCUS Marines Foundation provides transportation from across the U.S. plus room and board for the participants. All funding comes from private sources, through grants and fundraising. FMF receives no government funding.
Harriman hopes that people in general become more aware and interested in looking out for our veterans who may be struggling. An estimated 20 veterans per day commit suicide. ‘We need to eradicate that number. Don’t be afraid to reach out. If you know of someone who’s hurting or struggling, ask them how they are doing. They’ll probably say, ‘I’m fine.’ But ask them again. Show you care. Listen. You just might save a life,” he said.
Since its inception in 2010, over 800 vets have graduated from the FOCUS Marine program. Harriman has been involved since 2011. “It’s been amazing for me to see the success of the program. We really are helping people achieve a more peaceful and successful life,” he said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”
It takes over 100 volunteers to make just one of the four annual sessions happen, from food to housekeeping, to mentors and team leaders, to oversight and fundraising – there are all sorts of jobs and opportunities. Harriman said, “We rely heavily on volunteers and anyone wishing to get involved is encouraged to inquire via the FOCUS Marines website.”
“We also appreciate everyone who supports us financially. We hold various fundraisers throughout the year, and that support has truly changed lives in positive ways,” Harriman said.
The Annual FOCUS Marines Mess Night fundraiser will be this fall at Defiance Ridge Vineyards. Click here for more information.
For more information, please visit www.focusmarines.org.