Operation 22 Inc: A Lifeline for Veterans


Operation 22 Inc. is a volunteer based, not-for-profit organization that is dedicated to bringing the veteran community together to raise awareness and help end veteran suicide. They strive to provide veterans and military families with the support and resources they need to cope with their mental health issues. Through community outreach and creating camaraderie among those who have served, they hope to make a positive impact on the lives of our local veterans and their families.

**Trigger Warning** This piece discusses suicide and suicidal ideation, and some people might find it disturbing. If you or someone you know is suicidal, please, contact your physician, go to your local ER, or call the suicide prevention hotline in your country. For the United States, the numbers are as follows: The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255), or message the Crisis Text Line at 741741. Both programs provide free, confidential support 24/7.

We recently sat down with one of the founders of Operation 22, Stephen Swarner to learn more about the organization. Stephen shared, “Throughout my life I dealt with a lot of trauma, a lot of childhood trauma, and then I went into the military at a very early age in my life. I went to boot camp at age 17 and I went to Afghanistan in 2010. I lost two Marines. When I came back, that began my downward spiral. I had survivor’s guilt. I had tons of personal issues. I was drinking a lot, was very violent. And, you know, I was emotionally violent to my wife, but physically violent to like anybody else. And, you know, I just felt like I wasn’t enough. It was then that I decided that I didn’t need to be here anymore. So I put a gun in my mouth and pulled the trigger and it was a light primer strike. From that moment on, I realized that my life is precious, you know. Through God’s glory, I was able to to survive that. I left the Navy and from there tried to jump up into a much better spotlight. I tried multiple types of therapy, and it’s come to my knowledge that it’s like my therapy is helping other people. So, I share my story as much as possible. And I try and teach men that vulnerability isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. So that’s what led me into doing what I do now. My story started a couple of years ago. I helped out Remembering Heroes, which is another nonprofit, and we just wanted to take our help a different way.”

We asked Stephen how he met the other founders of Operation 22, Dennis Felsing Jr. and Chase Russell. He told us, “I met Dennis when I did his mortgage. He was the first mortgage I did three and a half years ago. We became pretty good friends. He knew that I was involved in the church. He knew I was involved with the Remembering Heroes and Remembering Veterans, another nonprofit that we both helped out at. He came on as a volunteer as well. Chase Russell was the marketing guy for Remembering Vets and Remembering Heroes. We all really connected and bonded. We’re all in different branches, so we give each other a lot of shit. But we became really good friends and we’re like brothers now. We spoke a lot about PTSD and mental health, TBI, traumatic brain injuries, etc and then we started sharing stories of friends that we’ve lost and the camaraderie that we lost when we left the military. And we were like, ‘Man, what if we could just bring that back? You know, imagine how much healing that would be if we could just recreate that that battle buddy effect.’ And so we departed Remembering Heroes in December and then January 1st, started Operation 22.”

We asked if they faced any challenges when trying to start Operation 22. Stephen answered, “The 501C3 is not an easy process to get. However, again, we were blessed. We actually got ours back pretty quickly. Typically it takes months and months and months and we were active in January of this year. We filed for it December 27, 2022 and then January 3, 2023 we were given the go ahead. So, you know, we started with $0 and, you know, we all just started throwing our funds at it. And then everything we’ve done so far has been fund raising. So I think, you know, the IRS and then the fundraising part is probably the hardest.”

When we inquired about the biggest reward of being involved with Operation 22, Stephen shared, “The biggest reward is definitely watching other men open up about some of the stuff that’s happened to them and finally getting that release and getting that weight lifted off their shoulders. I really wish you guys were at the poker run. You would have seen a lot of that. It was amazing to watch, you know, other guys, tough biker dudes that are old military veterans and young military veterans and just, you know, come unglued and and actually feel like they could they could tell somebody what what made them feel like the monster that they are or that they think they are. Everybody left with just such a free spirit. And we had a good turnout. We had 150 bikes. We had just about 300 people there and it was our first one. So it was pretty awesome to have a lot of people there. But the biggest reward would probably be watching some of these men unload the weight off their shoulders and then connecting with them and and becoming, you know, their new their new battle buddy or their new output for stress.”

Stephen also shared a goal for Operation 22. “Our goal is to bring nationwide awareness to mental health and PTSD. To help people understand that veterans don’t always have somebody to open up to and sometimes they won’t open up to you personally unless you’re opening up to them. Most of the time it takes another veteran who’s been around what they’ve been around and can relate in some form or fashion. Everybody takes things differently, but being able to relate to that person and telling them you know a little bit about it, but never tell them that you know what they’re going through because nobody is the same. Not a single person. So just be open. Be a good ear to listen and be willing to help. I think the most important part is never being judgmental, because some of the stuff that was done is not what we wanted to do. It’s not what we signed up to do. But it’s your job as a nation’s hero,” he explained.

When asked what his most memorable interaction has been since starting Operation 22, he told us, “I’m not going to say the gentleman’s name, but there was an interaction during the poker run that really grabbed on to me. This gentleman walked up and told me that he really appreciate what we were doing in regards to the poker run. He told me that I was always smiling all of the time and that I reminded him of Robin Williams.  I asked him when he was going to open up with his story. This dude was like 6’6″, tattooed from his neck to his ankles, jacked, muscular, and he just fell down in front of everybody crying. And he started telling his story about losing a friend in Afghanistan. And then he came home and got into drinking and then lost his dad right after. He said that he wanted to kill himself. He told us that if he didn’t come to that poker run today, he was going to kill himself. I got him in touch with the mental health people over at Halifax Health. They’re one of our sponsors and they said they would help out any of our guys. So I got him in touch with them and I just sat there and I just let him tell me the story. I stepped away from the whole poker run just to sit down with this guy and just hear him out. And there was so much that I could relate to. But again, his story just hits different. So it I don’t want to say his name, but I hope he reads this article because, you know, helping him really helps me, too. I think that’s one of the big important things about it.”

We asked Stephen if there was anything else he’d like to share, “I want to talk about a fundraiser that we want to kick off. Our goal is to have 1000 people donate $22 per month to operation22.com. That will give us enough funds to kick off and start the things we want to do for the veterans. Every single month, we want to recreate that camaraderie that some of these veterans left when they left the service. We’re going to schedule events, whether it be deep sea fishing, a golf tournament, renting ATVs, or just taking them out to dinner and a movie. We’re going to take 22 veterans out every single month starting in March 2024. The mentality is to hold on to each other. Let’s have somebody to talk to. Let’s check in on each other. You know, they’ll have a whole routine of checking in and making sure they’re okay, just being an ear to listen to. We’re going to do the annual poker run. We’ve thought about doing a pig roast, we’ve thought about doing a 5K, we thought about doing a ruck march. We thought about reaching out to a couple of other organizations to see if we can get grants. So if there’s a grant writer out there that wants to help us out, we could certainly use you. I mean, we’re an all volunteer organization, so 100% of the money goes to helping the veterans and starting our business. Some of the business part of it does cost money. So I’d like to say 100% goes to the veterans, but 100% goes to the business of getting the veterans to these events. So we’ll have a sign up log starting next year. Veterans will be able to just go on the website and say, I’m going to go deep sea fishing. I’m going to go bowling, I’m going to go to this this event. We’re going to have all the events that we would just be fun for for men to go to or women, you know, veterans in general to go to. And they’ll be able to sign up. And once they sign up for one event, they’re going to be with those 22 veterans in that event. And that’ll be there. That’ll be like their battle buddies, people that they can reach out to. And then once somebody from our board will be a part of each one of each group so that we can hold each other accountable for being in those.”

To learn more about Operation 22, visit www.operation22.com.

By Kim Hunt

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