'Shepherd's Men' run from Boston to Atlanta to support military veterans
ATLANTA - It's dawn along the Chattahoochee River in Atlanta. A small group of service members and civilians nicknamed "Shepherd's Men" are helping each other put on their flak jackets.
"They're 22 pound flak jackets," Marine Corps Sergeant Leo Briseno says. "Symbolizing the 22 veteran suicides that happen every single day."
Weighed down by those vests, the Shepherd's Men are now running from all the way from Boston to Atlanta, raising money and awareness of Shepherd Center's SHARE Military Initiative helping post 9/11 combat veterans.
"I really just want people to know there is a place they can turn to," says Briseno. "They don't have to turn to alcohol or drugs, abuse, suicide."
Chris Johnson, an Army veteran from Loganville, has struggled for years. Now, at 38, he's part of the SHARE program, digging in the dirt, and liking it, in Shepherd Center's horticulture program.
"It just gets you out in nature and just sets your mind at ease, to work with the plants," Johnson says.
Johnson had just married his wife when he was sent to Afghanistan the first time.
"I used to tell her every time, every time we got off the phone, if we spoke 20 times a day, I'd tell her I love her," he says.
That stopped on his first combat tour. On his second, he was nearly killed by RPG fire and then a roadside bomb.
"I sustained a concussion and blacked out for a few minutes," Johnson remembers. "And I woke up and returned fire."
Johnson came home with a traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. He felt cut loose, disconnected.
"It was rough," he says. "I had given up on life. I didn't want to go (on) anymore."
But, in January of 2016, he joined the SHARE program, and found therapy, medication that helped and support.
"Man, it's like magic," Johnson says. "These people, literally, it's like magic.
Johnson says the program helped him reconnect with his children and repair his relationship with his wife.
"And all of a sudden I'm here, and telling my wife I love her when I get off the phone, and stuff like that," he says. "I didn't say that, I'd say, for over 8 years."
Stories like that keep Shepherd's Men organizer Travis Ellis going. In the 8 years since the program was created with funding from Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus, Ellis, a civilian, says the SHARE Military Initiative has helped 300 combat veterans get the rehabilitation and support they need.
"It allows them to live again," says Ellis. "It keeps their families together. It allows their children to know their parent as mommy and daddy, versus a statistic."
On Sunday, as Shepherd's men arrive back in Atlanta after 9 days on the road, Chris Johnson will fall in and run with them. It's his way of supporting this program that gave him his life back.
"They're making it possible for soldiers to come here, without even worrying about health insurance, to get help," he says. "That's what this program does, it offers free help."