A veterans therapeutic service provider called Special Liberty Project relocated its headquarters from California to Macon County, North Carolina in October of 2020. Founded by Cory and Jessica Merritt in 2016, the nonprofit organization has locations in Arizona, California and now Western North Carolina.
Along with the new headquarters, Special Liberty Project has also opened its East Coast Retreat Center on a farm just outside of Franklin, North Carolina. CEO Jessica Merritt says the new center is the first to offer nature-centric healing programs to the entire veteran family including families that have lost a loved one during military service and veteran suicide survivors.
“Our organization is very unique because we not only serve families who have lost a loved one serving in the military but we also serve veteran suicide spouses and their children,” Jessica said. “The whole point of the organization is to bring families that have experienced a similar traumatic experience together in nature.”
Jessica’s husband, Cory, retired as a Senior Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy in December of 2020. He says that to his brother and sister veterans, retiring from service wasn’t part of his package.
“When you serve the military for 21 years it is a part of your life,” Cory said. “For half as long as I have been alive, I have been serving my fellow brothers and sisters in protection of this county; that doesn’t stop because my contract ended.”
Cory began giving what he calls his ‘skill set’ back to other service members long before he started thinking about retirement. An avid hunter and fisherman, word got around that he had skills that veterans healing organizations were looking for.
“I was invited to help out another event,” Cory told News 13. “Organizations would reach out to me and say ‘Hey, would you mind going with us to help out, to guide, to maybe carry a pack, help spot, just use some of your skill sets to help out this event?’ I was really happy to do it. I really enjoyed it because it is what it loved and I was giving back to the veteran community.”
A phone call from the spouse of veteran Cory guided on a hunting trip got Jessica involved with giving back to veterans as well.
“I received a phone call from a Wounded Warrior spouse and she was over the moon grateful,” Jessica told News 13. “She explained some personal issues they were dealing with and that his time spent with other veterans outside, just being able to get things off of his chest really changed their whole perspective on life. He can talk until he is blue in the face to his wife but she does not understand the struggles he has gone through and currently going through.”
And with that, the idea for Special Liberty Project was born.
“We actually started off just serving veterans and quickly realized that it wasn’t just the veteran we were helping,” Jessica said. “When that veterans goes home after one of our adventures and is better able to communicate and just be a nicer person in general, they are not as stressed. So you are touching the whole family already and then we realized, well gosh, if this is happening at home, let’s invite the whole family out and try and get everybody involved.”
Five years after the Merritts started Special Liberty Project in California, a move to Macon County redefined the mission. Before the move, Jessica attended a retreat for veteran suicide spouses and she said the weekend gave her an idea to expand the services Special Liberty Project provided to a group underserved and usually forgotten about.
“The dream and the vision behind the retreat center was really established when I hosted a retreat for veterans suicide spouses exclusively and it absolutely changed my life, and made me really want to dedicate my life to serving these families,” she said. “They were able to share things that have been kept in for sometimes as long as around a decade. The healing that was happening right in front of my eyes, I would get in my car after spending the day with them and just have to sit there and cry and get it out before the drive home that night. It seems so simple but it is so powerful .”
One might think that retirement would slow the Merritts down. But that’s not the case, says Cory.
“The second your contract is up and I’m now a civilian, although a veterans civilian, the resources are a fraction of what they were before and most of them are very difficult and complicated to find,” he said. ”We have to use each other as a support system to make up for what was there and now is not. It really comes down to comradery. Most people can Google search or make a phone call to the VA to find out a technical question or if they need a very specific service, but there will not be any comradery with it. Veterans help other veterans because they know what each other has been through and can understand each other.”
Continuing to serve comes down to one simple reason.
“I am continuing to serve because I care, it is what I know and what I care about,” Cory said. “I care so much about the brothers and sisters I worked with and the service members that worked for me and served under me that I have to continue to give back. Everything I have, everything that this country has is because of the sacrifices of our service members.”
For more about the services Special Liberty Project offers, or if you want to volunteer, click here.