You don’t need to be an outdoor enthusiast to know that nature offers a spiritual and therapeutic sanctuary from the stress of our worldly lives. For veterans and first responders, a retreat in the great outdoors is especially invaluable and enriching. To this end, Operation Patriots Forward Operating Base (OPFOB) was born.
OPFOB is the brainchild of its founder and chair, Roy “J. R.” Brown. J. R. spent three years in Iraq, both as a Marine and later as a contractor. He discusses his difficulties with PTSD once he returned home. “I was in a bad way. Thanks to the good Lord, a good woman and my kids, they were all able to pull me out of it. So, I try to help as many people as possible.” For J. R., outdoor activities such as golfing, hunting, fishing and shooting contributed to his healing. He realized the benefit of combining an outdoor setting with the goal of rekindling the camaraderie veterans experienced with one another while serving.
Unfortunately, all veterans do not experience J. R.’s success story. “I did it out of necessity,” he explains as to why he started OPFOB. “Through the delayed entry program, I recruited my best friend, Francis McNally. We grew up together and played sports together. When Francis got home from combat, he committed suicide.”
Recently, J. R. lost his 22nd buddy he served with in Iraq to suicide; that’s more friends than were killed in combat. “And I am not an anomaly; another OPFOB board member has lost 34 guys he was in Afghanistan with — all to suicide after they came home.” Statistics indicate that 22 veterans take their own lives each day, and some suggest that number actually may be as high as 33. “This is an unacceptable reality that we refuse to ignore.”
When J. R. met Ben Kennedy, now vice president of OPFOB, Ben quickly became excited about the idea of an outdoors facility for veterans and first responders. A real estate agent and custom homebuilder, Ben showed J. R. Ridgeland property that eventually would become OPFOB’s home. “I told J. R. we would figure out how to make it work.” The process took seven months of negotiations. Ben considers it divine intervention that “on July 23, 2020 — the day we closed on the property — we got a letter in the mail that OPFOB had received tax-exempt status.”
Ben’s “entire family is law enforcement and military. My father is a veteran. My uncle and cousin are combat vets. I lost a brother-in-law in the line of duty. “I never served, but this is my way of serving the military. If we can restore lives, we’re doing a good thing.”
Ben grew up hunting and fishing on a family farm in Georgia. “I have traveled to Africa and out West hunting, and I love inshore and offshore fishing, so all of this is right up my alley. I told J. R. to sign me up!”
“No civilian loves veterans more than Ben Kennedy,” says Morgan Strain, who served with J. R. and travels to OPFOB several times a year.
Located in the town of Ridgeland, the OPFOB property is 268 acres. Legacy Oaks Preserve, LLC, owns the property. OPFOB leases the rights to it. Legacy Oaks is a sporting club that will help offset the cost of OPFOB to service more opportunities for veterans. Currently, they are taking on memberships that will be filled in the next couple of months.
The 5,000 square-foot event barn was built from recycled telephone poles. Besides hosting events for veterans, it may be rented for weddings and social functions. The Jasper County Chamber of Commerce held their annual awards banquet here. A recent Joe Nichols concert brought 900 guests, and 3,000-4,000 are expected to see Justin Moore on October 8. Every Saturday, veterans come for breakfast and coffee hour before heading to the range.
The outdoor fire pit encourages social interaction. On May 8, 22 days before Memorial Day, OPFOB held “Light the Fire: 22 Days of Veteran Suicide Awareness.” Medal of Honor recipient Leroy Petry was on hand, and volunteers held fire watch to maintain the continuous burning fire. On Memorial Day, the fire was transported from the pit to a bonfire in a nearby field.
Immediately after acquiring the property, Ben and J. R. “started the vision process. We wanted to improve the range, enhance hunting opportunities and improve the event barn. During a two-year period, all of that has come to life.” Through hard work, determination and donations from generous local businesses and friends of veterans, they made countless improvements: poured concrete, laid sod, built a driveway, set a flagpole with bleachers for ceremonies, planted muscadine grapes to produce wine, moved a cottage from town for guests, built a berm for the range, dug ponds, planted a dove field, built and improved roads, established deer stands and constructed a helicopter landing site (HLS).
Besides coming out for R&R (rest and recuperation), veterans and first responders can pursue wild turkey, quail, doves, ducks, hogs, coyotes and freshwater fish. Guests can enjoy a 500-yard line range and a state-certified police requalification range, a challenging five-stand sporting clays course, 13 deer stands, a 20-acre dove field, four fully stocked fishing ponds and trails for hiking and running. Additionally, partnerships allow opportunities for nearby golf and inshore and offshore fishing. On an early morning dove hunt last season, the dozen or so dove hunters all limited out before 9 a.m. Future plans include a covered five-stand course, a bunkhouse and a dog kennel to train service dogs.
Since the staff were all trained in the military, preparation and safety are essential and continually emphasized. Veterans are interviewed and screened by T. J. Plummer, the veteran liaison, who reminds us that “the most highly trained individuals in the country are combat vets.” Twenty-seven trained range safety officers (RSO) are on staff. One RSO is always supervising every three to five vets at the range.
“We meet vets who have had to take out a terrorist, but they’ve never been hog hunting. We have first responders who have sacrificed so much, but they have never gotten to enjoy fishing in a pond,” Kennedy points out. “Veterans and first responders are an underappreciated group. This is a place for them to have to come share stories with other like-minded individuals and become volunteers. They were in the service before; now they get to serve through different means. It’s a nonclinical approach to helping people. We like to get people mud-bogging on ATVs and nighttime hog scouting. It’s a really cool thing to see them have fun and watch their eyes light up!”
“You just can’t help but come out here and relax. Stress just goes away,” declares “Grumpy Bill,” a retired master gunnery sergeant in the Marine Corps who lives nearby and volunteers seven days a week. “That’s what we do for vets — offer outdoor activities and do fun stuff. We want to let you take out your frustration on the target. We’re just a bunch of vets who have all chewed the same mud at one time or another in our careers. Who else better to relate to than each other?”
“People really enjoy coming out here,” adds Ben. “Our challenge is to get the word out but not feel commercialized. We want to enjoy the outdoors and a camaraderie with like-minded people. There is a sense of peace here. It is quiet and relaxing, and your mind has the opportunity to think and relax. The beautiful gem of the property is the serenity it gives us — just being outside watching the fox squirrels, seeing deer and hearing the birds sing in such a nature-rich environment. The cool thing is, it’s not just for veterans, law enforcement and first responders; it’s for kids and dogs too!”
J. R.’s passion has been infectious among veterans and civilians alike. Craig Ostegard served in Vietnam. “I kept looking for a boots-on-the-ground organization that helped veterans locally,” he says; he found just that in OPFOB. Phil Connell, another board member, adds, “You can’t outsource our nation’s security. My son joined the Marine Corps, and once he went to Afghanistan, I had skin in the game; it flipped a switch for me.”
Sen. Chip Campsen was a recent guest at the OPFOB property. He stayed in the cottage and went turkey hunting on a nearby tract the group leases. “I was extremely impressed with what they have done and the work they are doing. The two principals (Ben and J. R.) fronted the costs themselves. There was really a lot of energy there. I spent the evening having dinner and sitting around the fire with about 15 veterans of Middle East wars. It really was a great experience listening to those guys.”
OPFOB “provides that camaraderie those veterans were used to, and that is important to help them deal with what they went through. I know how important that fellowship is in every sportsman’s life.”
“I encourage veterans to reach out to your buddies,” J. R. says. You never know what’s going on inside. I didn’t call my friend Francis, and I wish I had. Let’s go through it together like we did in combat — and fight the devil together. Combat vets are sin-eaters, and we need to get outdoors and help each other!”
Ford Walpole lives and writes on John’s Island and is the author of many articles on the outdoors. He teaches English at James Island Charter High School and the College of Charleston and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.