When a friend asked Jeff McDonald to visit a new camp aimed at helping veterans transition to civilian life, the call could not have come at a better time.
Though McDonald left the Marine Corps after a dozen years of service, including Desert Storm, in 1995, the Corps stayed with him afterward and again took center stage when his son Chris joined and shipped off to combat in Iraq.
He had nothing but pride in his son’s service and subsequent rise up the ranks to meritorious sergeant in the Marine Reserve “Mike” Battery, where he also spent most of his career in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
But when Chris came home, something had changed.
The violence of the tour lingered. That, along with an untreated injury for which military doctors prescribed pain pills, set his son on a dark path that ultimately led to his suicide in 2012.
In the years since, McDonald has talked openly about the incident, trying to help other veterans who might face similar challenges. But his own feelings of guilt and remorse bubbled beneath the surface.
While working at an outdoor store, a second job he’d taken on after retiring as a school teacher, his pain erupted.
“It all just hit me, all at once,” McDonald said. “I totally snapped.”
So when Chris’ high school friend, retired Marine Staff Sgt. Joey Jones, called to ask if McDonald would come mentor transitioning veterans at Camp Southern Ground, McDonald agreed.
But first, Jones told him, he’d have to go through the program himself.
In its early stages, the transition program “Warrior Week” is trying to set itself apart, offering a free, immersive, week-long bonding experience in the woods south of Atlanta, Georgia.
The 500-acre property is home to a summer camp for kids in the warmer months and has been funded largely through a $20 million donation by Zac Brown of the Zac Brown Band. In addition, the band has devoted $2 of each ticket sale to continued funding of the site and its programs.
But there is also a total $50 million investment over the first three years of their buildup and a phase II investment that totals $100 million, Jones said.
That funds upkeep of the facilities and staffing, as well as transportation and fees for the Warrior Week and other activities.
The program combines practical advice with digging into a veteran’s larger goals.
Jones explained that while groups do bond and connect over shared experiences, the program is “forward-looking” and focused on vets “finding your mission.”
To accomplish that, they take a mixed approach that uses strength assessments to help vets discover their abilities. Then they work to define their purpose and finally develop a life plan.
“We’re about finding a healthy and happy life after service, being productive in whatever that means to you,” he said.
And Jones has had plenty of experience in charting his path. Jones lost both of his legs above the knee to a bomb blast while working as an Explosives Ordnance Disposal technician during a 2010 Afghanistan deployment.
Since then he’s interned with Congress, worked for the Boot Campaign — a nonprofit veterans support organization — and now serves as spokesman and military advisor for Camp Southern Ground.
A holistic approach to the Warrior Week might be an understated description.
Attendees have long days that closely resemble military life, minus the shouting drill instructors.
They’re going from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily and work in “tribes” of four, much like fire teams, with a tribe leader — typically a mentor who’s been through the program previously.
There are classes of course, but also ropes course team building, instructions in nutrition and share sessions where team members tell their stories and learn from each other about transition difficulties and successes.
There are core values talks, archery, axe throwing, even a yoga program created by semi-retired professional wrestler Diamond Dallas Page. And toward the end is a field trip to a business such as the Atlanta Braves baseball organization, the Georgia Film Academy or Glock firearms manufacturer.
Those are aimed at showing veterans alternative businesses that they might work for. A recent class went through a daylong firearms repair certification at Glock.
McDonald’s perspective deepened as he went through the week-long course last year. Fellow veterans had been shot multiple times, lost limbs and taken a year or more to regain the ability to walk.
“They got me kind of going back in the right direction,” he said. “We bonded like cement.”
Brent Taylor, a veteran Marine, transitioned the best he knew how at nearly 23 years old. He’d worked in radio repair, did tours in Iraq and left the service in 2010.
He got out, headed back to school and took some “nowhere jobs” before working at civilian armory. He would later rise through the ranks of the gun world to do sales for a company that made suppressors for special operations forces units.
But he didn’t feel a sense of purpose.
“I didn’t know how to define success,” he said.
He also learned about the program from Jones after having done work on various veteran nonprofits.
Taylor said that Jones told him to just come down, be a tribe leader and help people get to places on time. But, truthfully, Jones wanted Taylor to try the program himself, see if it could help.
The assessments he did during the week alone helped him identify for the first time some of the strengths he had that he wasn’t using in his sales jobs and were definitely not a part of what the Marines had trained him to do – working to help others.
Driving home from the program, Taylor knew he had to make a change. After a talk with his wife, he decided he would join the camp staff. He now serves as the military program coordinator.
Though McDonald, a 60-year-old Marine veteran, is old enough to be the father of many of his tribe members, he said that despite the generational difference the military bond has made the experience more level.
“You miss the brotherhood. You’ll never find that anywhere else other than the service,” he said.
McDonald said he can’t help but think that something like this could have helped his son find direction after his time in the Marines.
And he sees his future involvement as a way to use both his experiences — both the best and the worst — to help others.
“If I can keep someone from going through what I went through, what my family went through, buddy I’m in,” he said.