Deena C. Bouknight Contributing Writer
Veterans now have more opportunities for support and healing. Special Liberty Project (SLP) was established five years ago to provide outdoor adventures to healing veterans and Gold Star Families, and last year founders Cory and Jessica Merritt purchased a property in Franklin to make available a wide variety of activities, ranging from hunting and fishing to hiking and camping.
But this summer, the couple decided to focus not just on offering services nationwide, but to concentrate on the local community. Cory Merritt started Veterans Exploring Together (VET) to give area veterans an opportunity to process loss while talking and hiking together in nature.
“Once a month, he takes water and snacks and meets veterans at a trailhead,” said Jessica. “They hike in the morning and then afterwards share lunch together. Doing this provides an opportunity for veterans to get together and discuss things going on in the world and interact with other people who ‘get it.’ Plus, they are out getting exercise and fresh air, which is good for mental and physical health.”
VET takes place the third Sunday of each month.
“Each location is different each month,” added Jessica. “We can provide transportation or carpooling, if anyone needs it. And it’s just for veterans, not their families. It’s important for them to have that time for themselves … to be around other veterans, so they can be themselves and be transparent. They need to be able to talk about all the crazy current events and how they are feeling. And to know they’re not alone. These hikes provide major peer support.”
Jessica knows how important veterans supporting veterans can be. Her husband deployed multiple times during his long career in the Navy, from which he recently retired.
“The hikes are for all ages, as long as they can hike five miles or less. If they can’t do the hike, Cory is willing to get together with them before or after if a veteran needs that. Cory is trying to keep the group somewhat small and intimate, a maximum of 10, so people are comfortable sharing. But if many veterans want to participate, he said he may be able to do more than one hike a month.”
Jessica recently wrote a grant request to a local organization for funds to help pay for veterans’ lunches, first-aid kits, hiking sticks, and other needs.
In addition, another local offering through SLP addresses the difficulties and uncertainties of military families transitioning from military life to civilian life.
“I know about that in a very personal way,” said Jessica. “I’m trying to learn how to navigate and support my husband and the children after we have spent so many years in the military.”
At their Onion Mountain-area property, the Merritts have relied on the outdoors and their equestrian activities as “grounding” to their new civilian lives. Jessica realized that the same pursuits could help spouses adjust better to their new lifestyles.
“Being outdoors and around horses is therapeutic,” she said. She decided to begin working with a local counselor who specializes in meditation and mindfulness, as well as Courtney Beaver, who specializes in natural horsemanship with In the Irons Equestrian, to provide periodic sessions involving meditation, art, time with horses, and more for local military spouses.
Held at SLP’s Nurture/Nature Retreat Center in Franklin, upcoming sessions are Sept.19, Oct. 17, and Nov. 21. The sessions will break during winter months and then resume in spring 2022.
Any veteran’s spouse can register through www.speciallibertyproject.org, under the “Events” tab, or by emailing Jessica Merritt directly at email@example.com.
For the VET hikes, veterans can also contact Jessica. Proof of veteran status is required. Jessica explained, “Being a nonprofit, we have to be responsible with our funds. Our activities are offered at no charge to the families we serve, thanks to our sponsors and donors. And we are always looking for local sponsors to help support these families.”