AXE OF KINDNESS
Veterans Support Group Living Waters Finds New Purpose Beyond Farm
Steven Wheelbarger, on his final military deployment in Iraq, was on the verge of making a decision that can be made only once.
“I was close to committing suicide,” the Harrisonburg native and Marine veteran said Sunday. “I was headed back to my room and saw a vision of my son instead, so I went to the chapel.”
He sought help after the deployment because he never wanted to feel that low again. Wheelbarger was in the Marine Corps for 23 years between 1990 and 2013. He is an Iraq War veteran who fought in Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Wheelbarger, now living in Rockingham County, was standing outside Beards and Broads Axe Throwing on Evelyn Byrd Avenue in Harrisonburg on Sunday afternoon. Inside the strip mall storefront, the semi-constant thudding of axes striking wood mixed with jovial conversation and acoustic guitar music.
Veterans, their family and friends gathered for an axe-throwing fundraiser tournament for the third annual Axe Isolation fundraiser to support Living Waters, a local veteran support group.
Beards and Broads is a place Wheelbarger is well accustomed to, as he and other veterans meet for a peer group on Mondays at the business.
Three years ago, he saw Travis Coyle of Living Waters Farm Initiative on television. Wheelbarger has been in counseling for 12 years, but the past three years of local peer groups support has been stronger for him than the therapy.
Living Waters Farm Initiative has changed its name to Living Waters Freedom Initiative, according to Coyle, the executive director and a founder.
“The reason we did a farm was because that’s what we had,” Coyle said. “If I’d had a bowling alley, it would have been Living Waters Bowling Initiative.”
During COVID, Coyle and his wife discovered the farm was actually limiting their ability to reach veterans as much as they’d like.
“We realized we didn’t have to be tied to a location,” Coyle said.
They’ve decided to let the farm go to pursue a different approach that allows veterans across the country to help form their own outreach and support programs.
Living Waters Freedom Initiative will provide interested veterans with guidance and help with the mundane and challenging steps to setting up a nonprofit — all things the Coyle family knows well after setting up Living Waters in the first place.
“Let us give you that platform,” Coyle said. “All we ask in return is you establish a peer group and help other veterans.”
That way, Coyle said, veterans can focus on reaching out to each other wherever they are instead of Living Waters Farm Initiative having to find veterans and invite them to come to the Broadway-area farm.
He said it really hit home last year, when the family met with three widows whose military spouses had died by suicide.
“We’re like, we got to stop building this facility and go find these veterans, because one would have been too many, let alone three, that we were only separated by one degree of separation and we never made contact,” Coyle said.
He said benefits of continuing with the farm model were outweighed by the larger, more positive possibilities of changing tack.
“If we let one more veteran slip through the cracks, what is the purpose?” Coyle said. “At the end of the day, I don’t care about how nice of a farm I have. I care about no one goes through the same struggle that I went through alone.”
Like Wheelbarger, military veteran Coyle has a near suicide story. Before it was Beards and Broads, Coyle was doing work as a handyman for a business in the same storefront one News Year’s Eve. Later that night, he drank liquor and shot himself in the head, but survived.
Wheelbarger heard about Living Waters three years ago. And over that time, four of the Marines Wheelbarger served with have died by suicide.
Veterans can understand each other on a level others cannot, said Brad Smith, a Weyers Cave Navy veteran who served in the Iraq War in 2005 as a corpsman. He joined the military in 2001 and graduated boot camp a week before the Sept. 11 attacks. A corpsman is a rank in the Navy which provides medical aid to troops.
Smith now works at the Harrisonburg Veterans Affairs Clinic. He said events like Sunday’s help move the needle to reduce veteran suicide.
“I feel like not enough is being done out there to reduce overall suicide, but especially among veterans, it’s worse,” he said.
Smith was at the fundraiser at Beards and Broads with his father, Mitch Shifflett of Clover Hill, a Walker Tenneco worker.
“This is all about him and the [other] veterans,” Shifflett said.
Kyle McQuillian, an owner of Beards and Broads, said he and his brother and business co-owner, Jay Roderick, are always happy to host the annual event.
“It’s such a great foundation,” McQuillian said between belting out explanations for an axe-throwing game Sunday.
Wheelbarger and a veteran peer group meet at Beards and Broads on Monday nights for peer groups, which multiple veterans said Sunday are helpful. The peer groups started in December 2019.
“It’s about being there for each other,” Wheelbarger said.
During the discussions, a common theme will emerge among how the veterans are feeling and dealing with their struggles.
“Veterans are hard to admit they need help,” Wheelbarger said. “We feel that we can handle on our own. It’s just being able to break through to that and let them know that there’s others that are going through the exact same thing.”