July is a special month because of the significance of Independence Day, July 4th. Apart from family get-togethers it gives us another time to reflect on and appreciate our armed forces and their families, and to express gratitude for their sacrifices. Julie and I are honored to add another great military support group to our giving program: the Special Liberty Project / Gold Star Corps. What is particularly great about this group is that they are a home-grown San Diego idea that fills a unique need.
I have also added a great interview from SDVoyager with Jessica Merritt, co-founder, wife of US Navy Chief Petty Officer Cory Merritt, and the mother of their two children. (SD Voyager 6/21/18).
This is part of a continuing series I have written to draw attention to helping our veterans and their families. Last month Julie and I were blessed to spend a morning with Derek Knapp, Beth Rand and Katie Camp at Restoration Ranch in Bastrop Texas (Hero of Month, January 2017) and finally see first-hand the outstanding work they are doing. If you have a minute, please also check out their story. — Jim
By Phil Diehl, San Diego Union-Tribune Reporter
Aaron Stagg helps Riley Bacong, 6, take aim while shooting arrows at the archery range at Lake Poway on Saturday. The two were taking part in the
Special Liberty Project’s new Gold Star Kids mentoring program.
(photo by Don Boomer; Phil Diehl, reporter)
About 15 kids who lost somebody special in their lives to military combat spent some quality time with like-minded mentors Saturday morning.
The youngsters got an archery lesson, enjoyed a picnic together and then hiked a nature trail along Lake Poway on the first outing of the Gold Star Corps, a new arm of the Special Liberty Project, Inc.
The term “gold star” dates to World War I, when families flew flags with a blue star for family members in military service. The blue star was changed to gold for anyone killed in action.
Each boy or girl in the Gold Star Corps is paired up with an active-duty military member or veteran who helps them learn the skills of outdoor adventures such as hiking, camping, hunting and fishing, said project founder and president, Jessica Merritt.
“The whole goal is for them to have a heroic role model in their lives, someone to guide them through fun and adventurous outdoor activities,” Merritt said.
Merritt and her husband, Cory, a Navy senior chief petty officer, started the Special Liberty Project in 2016 for combat wounded veterans. Since then they’ve taken veterans on nearly half a dozen outdoor trips in San Diego and Imperial counties.
Her husband’s own overseas deployments over the past 18 years brought home the need to mentor the children of fallen service members.
“I noticed my own children’s need for a mentor in their lives while their dad was away,” she said. “I knew my husband was coming home, but Gold Star families don’t have that privilege any longer.”
Aaron Stagg, a Navy search-and-rescue swimmer who works with Merritt’s husband, volunteered to help with the trips.
“They needed some hunting guides, and I grew up hunting,” Stagg said. He enjoyed those trips, and so he was glad to mentor the kids.
“We share the loss that they had … and the experiences,” he said.
Saturday morning Stagg was showing 6-year-old Riley Bacong how to aim her arrow. A quiet little girl wearing a pink cap and red nail polish, she focused intently on the target and let her arrow fly.
Riley’s aunt, Florence Bacong Choe, was a Navy officer working in a hospital when she was killed in Afghanistan on March 27, 2009. Riley was at the range with her father, her uncle and two cousins.
“We try to let her know what her aunt did for her country, and what her aunt was all about,” said Riley’s dad, Ron Bacong.
For one of the older kids at the range, Andrew Bisson, 15, the outing was more than just perfecting his archery skills. It was a chance to spend quality time with his family, make new friends and think a little about his future.
Andrew’s father was an Army Airborne soldier killed in Iraq in 2007.
“We’re trying to get him involved in all kinds of different activities,” said his grandfather, Rick Bisson. “He’s at an age now where we want to look at all the things he can do.”
An Oceanside resident, Andrew has flown Cessnas with the Civil Air Patrol at Camp Pendleton, he’s raising a turkey with the Future Farmers of America, and he’s a member of the Junior ROTC at his high school.
It’s unknown exactly how many Gold Star families there are in the United States, but more than 6,000 service members were reported killed in the recent conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Navy alone has 2,700 Gold Star families in its six-state Southwestern Region, said Sabrina Griffin of the Navy Gold Star Program. About 23 percent of those family members are children.
“Our mission is to provide long-term support for the families of the fallen,” Griffin said Saturday at Lake Poway. “When children lose a parent to an untimely death, you still need that support from the community you belong to, which is the military.”
The Special Liberty Project founders hope to buy a ranch in eastern San Diego County where they can provide regular outdoor adventures for combat-wounded veterans and Gold Star children, Merritt said.
photo from the SD Voyager, June 21, 2018)
Today we’d like to introduce you to Jessica Merritt.
Jessica, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
It all began about two years ago when my husband Cory Merritt, had the opportunity to take a combat wounded veteran on a local weekend hunting trip.
The day after the hunt, I received a call from the Veteran’s wife thanking us for taking him out in the field. She said that getting back out in nature with other Veterans was exactly what he needed in his life. He had been struggling with some issues, she informed me that both of their lives were positively impacted by the event. At that point, I was completely on board. There was a need that we could dedicate an entire organization to. The next day we started the non-profit paperwork and shortly after we were out in the field with 5 Veterans on our first Special Liberty Project adventure.
Our goal was to host four events the first year, we surpassed that by hosting 11! By taking Veterans on outdoor adventures such as hiking, camping, hunting and fishing, they are able to return home refreshed and recharged. These events were truly life-changing for some of our Veterans. We have been incredibly blessed by some of the Veterans who we served in the past, they have been so positively impacted that they came back to us and want to volunteer with the organization to give back to their brothers and sisters in arms.
During my husband’s last deployment, with the help of some great volunteers, I ran two hunting trips for our Veterans. During the events, I noticed how my own children were drawn to this amazing group of men. They needed more in their lives than what mom could offer, they needed a mentor. The Special Liberty Project has always welcomed Gold Star Families with open arms, but because of what I had seen in our own personal family life, this inspired me to create a program focused on giving back to Gold Star Kids by partnering them up with Veterans.
Gold Star Families will never have the luxury of another homecoming, they will not be able to enjoy fun family outings together such as hiking or camping. We created a mentoring program, “Gold Star Corps” where Gold Star Kids will be guided by Veterans through outdoor, educational, fun quarterly events. The first event will take place on June the 9th at the Lake Poway Archery Range.
Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
We have been so humbled by the amazing community support we have received. The biggest struggle has been finding the time to dedicate to running the organization, especially while my husband is deployed. We now have many volunteers and I’m beyond thankful for the help! We are also always on the hunt for private ranches that would allow us to host an event, as well as funding.
Alright – so let’s talk business. Tell us about The Special Liberty Project – what should we know?
The Special Liberty Project is a 501 (c)(3) organization dedicated to serving ill and injured veterans, their families and Gold Star Families by getting them back in the great outdoors. We host outdoor adventures such as hiking, camping, hunting and fishing, everything is provided, all of the gear is taken care of, all of the meals and snacks are provided, participants just need to show up, relax and have fun. We are proud to serve Veterans, their families and Gold Star Families because we appreciate how much they have given to us and our country.
Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
My husband Cory Merritt is the man behind the dream. He had an idea and we ran with it and never looked back. I’m the lady behind the scenes doing all of the nitty-gritty work to make things happen.
We have an amazing team of volunteers who help in numerous ways, from web design, guiding hunts, organizing fundraisers and speaking at events. Kaleb Weakley, Chris Gibson and Aaron Hoye have been a huge help from the very beginning and we would not be here without them!
(More information about Jessica Merrit and the Special Liberty Project may be found at http://speciallibertyproject.com.)