Jeff Clemetson | Editor
Cory and Jessica Merritt know a lot about service to community and country. Cory is an active duty senior chief petty officer in the Navy and for the last several years Jessica has spearheaded programs started by the couple to help wounded veterans and Gold Star families — the families of servicemen or women killed in combat.
Cory began serving the veteran community after he had an opportunity to work with some other local organizations, taking wounded vets out on outdoor adventures. But he felt like something was missing from the experience with those other groups.
“I noticed it wasn’t as much of a personal feel, but I did notice the impact it was having,” he said. Soon thereafter, Cory talked with Jessica and introduced the idea of starting their own organization. “I told her, ‘We can do this, and we can do it better and it’s making a difference. We can make an impact with this.’”
The couple then started Special Liberty Project, which brings wounded veterans together on hiking, camping, hunting and fishing excursions. And it was on one of these trips that the idea for the couple’s second organization came into focus.
“[Cory] was sent on deployment and I still hosted all the [Special Liberty Project] events while he was away, and we have 8-year-old twins who help me with all our events,” Jessica said. “We were up in Julian on a turkey hunt and I had 11 veterans up there and I noticed throughout the day during the event that my kids were naturally drawn to this group of veterans that we were serving, and I realized that my own kids need something more in their life than what only I can provide while their dad is deployed — they need a mentor.”
And in thinking of her own children’s needs, she realized that Gold Star children — those who lost their fathers or mothers in combat — would need mentoring even more.
The Merritts then founded Gold Star Corps — a program that fosters positive relationships for Gold Star kids and mentors with military backgrounds — some of whom are active duty, some retired and some are even wounded vets from the Special Liberty Project.
“Which is really cool for the kids because it’s very special to be a military child [but] once their parent passes away who was in the military, they don’t have that aspect anymore,” Jessica said.
The Gold Star families and mentors meet up at quarterly events, which also revolve around outdoor activities — the kind that a father would traditionally take his children on.
“There are just certain things that men take care of and sometimes [military moms] don’t have that around,” Jessica added.
Mark Kirkland has attended four Gold Star Corps events as a mentor. He is now retired but got involved with the group through Cory, who he served with in the Navy. In the most recent event — a hiking trip to Mission Trails Regional Park on Dec. 1 — he mentored two siblings, a boy and a girl. During the event, he took the children on a scavenger hunt that featured a military theme with questions about the military, the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the mentors and children even did pushups together at one station.
“We also built a tool box,” Kirkland said. “On the scavenger hunt, you were getting pieces and in the very end, we helped them build a toolbox and even got tools to go in that toolbox.”
Jewel Carruth said her son was especially excited by the toolbox project at the Mission Trails trip.
“He said he wanted to do it all by himself,” she said adding that he did the drilling and screwed together pieces with just a little guidance from his mentor.
Carruth lost her husband Gary, a Marine, to a car accident that also took the life of her second oldest daughter. Before that, Gary suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“The year it all started, I was reluctant to do anything in getting help for the kids and myself and it turns out once I started looking into different organizations, I met other widows who went through the same thing I went through,” she said. “As we meet [other Gold Star] wives and we start sharing our stories, we realize we’re not alone in what we feel — how we feel in what we went through.”
Part of the Gold Star Corps program, in addition to providing activities for the kids, is providing the mothers a chance to relax and do activities of their own. At the Mission Trails event, the moms made ornaments with Polaroid pictures of the families with their mentors.
“I always provide something really special for the moms,” Jessica said. “At our first event, we did manicures and massages in the park while their kids were off with their mentor and they knew their kids were safe and doing something productive.”
The whole family approach of Gold Star Corps is what keeps Carruth making the trip from Riverside County to participate in the quarterly events.
“It’s our time where we can get away from the normal day-in-day-out activities of stress and school and work and be able to just relax and enjoy a fun-filled day of family involvement,” she said. “And having the mentors is great because my son, who was barely 4 years old at the time [of his father’s death], internalizes everything. But by having the mentors, he’s slowly but surely coming out of that and starting to open up a little.”
It’s that connection, as well as the fun outdoor activities, that motivates Cory’s dedication to the organizations and has him looking forward to spending more time with them when he retires in two years.
“It’s the most emotional and rewarding thing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “It’s incredible to be able to see the impact and the feedback firsthand. When a child opens up to you and starts engaging with you and participating in whatever activity with you and you get that response and feedback, it’s incredibly rewarding. You notice you’re making a difference right away. And its validated when the Gold Star spouses come up and say, ‘My son or daughter hasn’t opened up like that to somebody in a very long time.’”
Kirkland is also motivated by the rewards of helping his fellow servicemen and their families.
“For most of the guys who do this, it’s almost like a privilege, I think — that they let us do this,” he said. “I served for a long time and I have friends who didn’t come home — they paid the ultimate sacrifice. So I guess I feel like I’m paying it for them. And I guess I always hoped that if I was one of those guys who didn’t [come home], that someone would do this for my kids. And it’s stuff I like to do anyhow, so it’s great.”
For the Merritts, growing and expanding the Special Liberty Project and Gold Star Corps programs is what they have decided on for their future. The couple is looking to purchase a ranch in San Diego’s back county — somewhere near Julian, they hope — and offer weekend retreats for the growing number of vets and families they serve. Currently, there are around 40 families in the Special Liberty Project and 35 families in the Gold Star Corps program.
“It’s grown really fast and we’ve been able to serve a lot of people,” Jessica said, adding that they had only planned on holding four events this year, but instead held 20, due to an outpouring of support from sponsors and donors. The new year already looks like it will be busy with a spa day for Gold Star wives planned for January, and a kayaking trip and tour of the Living Coast Discovery Museum planned for March.
—Reach Jeff Clemetson at firstname.lastname@example.org.