John Paulson remembers what it was like to come home from Vietnam as a young Marine in 1970 and into the world of old-school veterans groups.
“I went to a VFW and it was filled with all these old World War II guys smoking, drinking, cussing … I never went back,” says the Sandy Springs resident, best known for serving on the City Council and his service at the Buckhead American Legion post.
Today, through a twist of fate and a commitment to service, Paulson is now CEO and executive director of a new kind of veterans organization focused on tailored help for wounded vets of the post-Sept. 11 wars. The Phoenix Patriot Foundation, created in 2010 by a North Springs Charter High graduate who became a Navy SEAL, is a modest but growing nonprofit operating in three areas across the country, including Atlanta, Houston and southern California, and directly aiding about a dozen veterans.
PPF has its own rock band and has helped to fund veterans’ albums. It has organized Special Forces style Jet Ski journeys hundreds of miles along ocean coasts. Most importantly, it’s open to doing just about anything a wounded veteran is driven to pursue.
“We purposely set up these programs to cover anything that comes,” Paulson said.
Kyle Butcher, a Newnan resident, is one of the veterans who has come to PPF. In 2005, he was a young soldier on track to become an Army Ranger when he was shot three times while serving in Afghanistan, ending his military career.
“I didn’t know which way was up. I was 20 years old and had my life goal taken away from me,” he said.
Butcher tried visits to the Veterans Affairs services, but it’s “just not set up to do the one-on-one,” he said. Then he found PPF and joined one of the quarterly “Vetlanta” veterans meetings, run by a separate local organization, that Paulson helped him connect with. Now Butcher participates in those Jet Ski adventures that PPF modestly calls “Challenges” — “600 miles in four days in eight-foot seas at times … it’s not for everybody.”
The importance of PPF, Butcher says is “having their own little organization that specifically tailors what they do … They’re absolutely accommodating. It’s not just, ‘Hey, let’s take a trip.’ It’s like, ‘You want to do woodworking the rest of your life? We’ll find a way to make it happen.’”
The personal touch — and Paulson’s involvement — came from the personal reasons PPF was founded by Jared Ogden. Ogden is a Roswell native who attended North Springs with Paulson’s children and ended up starting a house-painting business with his son Jeff. Mary Paulson, John’s wife, was particularly close to Ogden and stayed in touch as he attended the Naval Academy and then became a SEAL.
In Afghanistan, a teammate and friend of Ogden was severely wounded, losing both legs, among other injuries. Ogden soon saw the limited services able for veterans with physical and mental wounds who come home with an abrupt end to a vigorous, team-oriented lifestyle. So he founded PPF to help them “re-engage” and “re-integrate.”
In the early years, Ogden, who now lives in St. Louis, sometimes visited the Atlanta area. In 2011, Sandy Springs declared a “Jared Ogden Day,” and for a 2014 fundraiser, he memorably parachuted onto the 18th hole of the Dunwoody Country Club, carrying an American flag and clad in a tuxedo.
“He thought he was James Bond,” Paulson jokes.
Around that time, Ogden asked Paulson to join the PPF board to help tighten up its organization. And about 18 months ago, as Ogden grew busy with a target shooting enterprise, he asked Paulson to take over the organization’s leadership.
“It’s been rewarding. It’s been challenging,” Paulson said.
For the Atlanta chapter, Paulson is working on a number of programs and offerings with varying success. One program is $2,000 in tuition assistance with the Technical College System of Georgia, but no vets have yet applied. PPF is trying to find better ways to connect veterans with the program.
For early next year, Paulson is organizing a local version of a “challenge” — a Chattachoochee River boating trip to run 35 miles from the Buford Dam to Sandy Springs’ Overlook Park.
Then there are more causal opportunities to socialize and talk in a way that only another veteran can. That’s for both camaraderie and, like many PPF programs, potential therapy for such mental affects such as post-traumatic stress disorder, which Paulson said he suffered after Vietnam.
“I’m a combat veteran,” he said. “Combat veterans talk to each other in ways non-combat veterans don’t get.”
“No veteran will say he needs help. It doesn’t work that way,” Paulson said. But if he or she has a skill or activity they are driven to pursue, he has a simple message about what PPF offers: “We’ll figure it out.”
For more information, see PhoenixPatriotFoundation.org.
Update: This story has been corrected to clarify that the Vetlanta meetings are run by a separate organization.