Giving Veterans What They Crave Most – A New Mission
When Americans serve in the armed forces, they are given a mission. They develop a sense of duty and purpose, and they benefit from a committed network of support.
Michael Paul describes it as “camaraderie” and “fellowship with like-minded individuals.” He says, “When you’re in combat, you develop teamwork techniques and it becomes you.”
But what happens when those soldiers return to civilian life? What if they no longer have a mission, a sense of duty, a purpose or a network of support?
Unfortunately, many U.S. veterans find themselves in that exact position. Some turn to alcohol or drugs to fill a void. An alarming number commit suicide.
Veterans Adventure Group
Michael knows firsthand what he’s talking about when he discusses the veteran’s plight. He served in the U.S. Army for four years active and four years in the Reserves, being deployed mostly in Germany during the Gulf War era.
“The military can turn people into extremists,” Michael said. “When you’re constantly in fight or flight mode – whether it’s for four or eight or 20 years – you are hardwired into having that personality, whether you like it or not.
“It takes a long time to try to manage that.”
Through Veterans Adventure Group, Michael is devoting his post-military life to helping veterans manage their civilian lives.
Re-establishing a Support Network
“I try to help give them guidance to reprogram their minds,” he said. “You can’t do what you used to do in the service, so you have to find the things you can do.
“We try to offer resources to facilitate that. We don’t provide everything but we have a niche. We try to point them in the right direction. Our focus is on organized groups of teams engaging in what we call ‘adventure therapy.’
“They miss having their brothers and sisters in arms around them, so we develop networks and levels of accountability.
“I develop retreats for them where they can get what they need. Those networks serve as a framework for building, training and equipping.
‘Nature Is the Best Medicine’
“Without these things, veterans can go down a rabbit hole of depression, self-loathing, PTSD and coping in unhealthy ways,” Michael continued. “Vets are being fed a lot of prescription opiates, but they’re mind-numbing and the long-term effects are not good.
“We’re trying to get them off those drugs. Nature is the best medicine for many of them.”
There are many and varied activities in which veterans can participate under the Veterans Adventure Group umbrella.
For the more active and healthy vets, they include extreme events such as mountain climbing, skydiving, rock climbing and kite surfing. For others, there is scuba diving, skiing, caving, hiking and nature excursions.
Finding the Right Fit
“Many veterans are looking for the adrenaline rush they acquired while serving their country. Especially the elite vets who were in special ops.
“Justin Matejcek, who founded Veterans Adventure Group, handles the extreme stuff, but not everyone is equipped for that,” said Michael, who has been confined to a wheelchair since 2002 after breaking his back in a parachute drop.
“In my program, I work with a number of guys who have sustained catastrophic disabilities. Obviously they aren’t able to do some of those same things.”
Pursuing the Mission
Based in Middle Tennessee, Veterans Adventure Group was launched by Justin in 2015. He sought to establish an opportunity for veterans to avoid or rebound from the pitfalls associated with leaving the service and rejoining civilian life.
The nonprofit organization is open to all veterans regardless of their diagnosis. Missions are selected based on activities that push participants past their perceived limits toward challenges requiring a team-oriented mindset.
The organization equips the teams with the gear they need to safely and effectively achieve their missions.
All donations to Veterans Adventure Group are used to purchase that gear and mission-essential services, including transportation and permits when applicable.
Veterans Helping Veterans
Training sessions run by veterans are held regularly to help prepare vets for these missions. As well as to establish support networks, accountability, direction and guidance.
Participants are also challenged to find, recruit and support other veterans needing help in overcoming challenges in their civilian lives. They are free to set up their own smaller groups under the Veterans Adventure Group umbrella.
They are also expected to participate in fundraising activities. Michael said he recently raised about $6,000 on social media platforms. Everyone is expected to pitch in to help other veterans.
Establishing the Compound
“Thanks to donations, I spend less than $20,000 each year on these activities. We rely heavily on social media to solicit our programs and fundraise too,” said Michael, who has a bachelor’s degree in mass communications and a master’s degree in counseling.
“That way, people are aware of what we’re doing and where the money they donate is going.”
Michael’s “subset” of Veterans Adventure Group includes hosting weekend veteran's nature retreats.
The Compound in Silver Point, Tennessee where these retreats are based is located at a rustic spot about an hour outside Nashville. Veterans can choose barracks in which to sleep or they can “rough it” under the stars. (For a look at this site, visit CompoundHQ.org)
Adapting to COVID-19
Among the locations at which veterans engage in various activities in Middle Tennessee are Caney Fork River, Center Hill Lake, Burgess Falls State Park, Cummins Falls State Park and Fall Creek Falls State Park.
Most of the participants are from Tennessee, but some come from surrounding states.
“We had 30 people at our Labor Day event, dividing into groups of 10 to adhere to state guidelines,” Michael said. “We broke up into a hiking group, a kayaking group and then another group down to the lake for rides through the Freedom Boat Club.
“Back in February before COVID really hit, I had my ski camp, but then we had to stop operations so I shifted my focus to constructing a 30-foot by 60-foot building on top of a ridge for our Compound.
“We wanted to continue giving guys in small groups the opportunity to get out of city, get sunshine and participate in activities like hiking and kayaking. We also established a Sunday fellowship for those who are interested.
4Patriots and PHA Pitch In
“There are many ways people can be involved with us, including donations,” he continued. “Some volunteers come to the retreats and events to cook meals for the vets or to provide transportation. We’re constantly looking for people to get involved.”
4Patriots and Patriot Health Alliance recently made donations to Veterans Adventure Group in the form of an air purifier, survival food and Sun Kettles. As well as Solar Sentry Lights, BugOUT lanterns and health supplements including Patriot Power Greens.
“4Patriots has been a benefit to our program,” Michael said. “We cooked the food they provided and their supplements are a hit. The air purifier was great for the inside of our Compound.
“We’re also developing primitive campsites and we’re teaching survival skills, so we feel we’re a good fit for 4Patriots. Eventually, with funding we can make tiny home huts for the vets, and we love working with our local companies for that support.”
A 30-Year Journey
Michael joined the Army’s infantry and airborne service in October 1990 and was sent to Germany. He was selected for a special operations group, executing long-range reconnaissance and long-range surveillance with the 3rd Infantry Division, as well as military intelligence activities.
He was trained with special ops in International Long Range Recon School and was attached to the 5th Group Special Forces scuba HALO team while serving with 101st Airborne LRS before returning home.
Michael used his GI bill for college, studying business technology, then started a personal training business in health and fitness. He became a massage therapist and a yoga, kickboxing and fitness instructor.
After his injury in 2002, Michael earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees and played a variety of wheelchair sports. He then got involved with The Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization empowering veterans facing the challenges of adjusting to civilian life.
He also served as an intern at a VA hospital in Long Beach, California with the Paralyzed Veterans of America, which led to getting hired to counsel veterans. In 2019, he transitioned to Veterans Adventure Group.
‘This Is My Passion’
When asked why he spends so much time helping other vets, Michael said, “This is my passion as a vet myself. I come from a family of vets who have served.
“My father was in Special Forces in Vietnam and served for 26 years in the military. My uncle’s oldest brother committed suicide after the Vietnam War so I’m trying to combat suicide.
“I want to bring guys together in a safe environment to help each other. I’ve been an adaptive wheelchair athlete for some time now – basketball, tennis, ski racing and sled hockey. In fact, I still get paid a stipend for competing in tennis.
“I believe that God provides what is needed and when it’s needed. I’m a man of faith and God brings me people when the time is right for them. I just try to facilitate that and help out how I can with the resources I have.”
Gaining National Attention
While most of the Veterans Adventure Group participants are men, some of the participants and leaders are women.
“Women lead my hiking groups and kite surfing, and they are on our boards,” Michael said.
“We want the female perspective so we can cater to a wider range of veterans. We’re constantly reaching out to women who can participate and lead.
“Veterans Adventure Group is beginning to receive some national publicity. We are planning on filming in March to share our story and promote the programs we have in the Tennessee area. We have leaders in various parts of the country leading programs in various extreme activities and sports.”
In addition, Michael contributed to a documentary on scuba diving and PTSD with the Cody Unser First Step Foundation in 2011. He also met with a film crew about a potential television show.
Those interested in making a financial or product donation to Veterans Adventure Group can go to VeteransAdventureGroup.org or find them on Facebook.