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Retreat offers solace for military members and family suffering from PTSD

Justin Fitch passed away after a fight with stage four colon cancer in 2015, but dedicated the last days of his life to supporting the charity that saved his life in 2011: Active Heroes.

SHEPHERDSVILLE, Ky. — When Justin Fitch called Active Heroes in 2011, he was ready to end his life.

"Justin contacted Active Heroes...and he said that he had a gun to his head," Troy Yocum, president and founder of Active Heroes, said.

Struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, pointing a gun at his head, the U.S. Army veteran sought help the Kentucky-based veteran suicide prevention organization.

Yocum, who created Active Heroes the same year Fitch called, was able to talk to Fitch, giving him the support and resources he needed to put the gun down.

Fitch's struggles with PTSD were not isolated. According to a September 2018 Veterans Affairs report, more than 6,000 veterans committed suicide each year from 2008 to 2016.

An Iraq veteran himself, Yocum said that although he does not suffer from PTSD, his time in the military did haunt him when he returned home. 

"When I came home from Iraq, every night I was dreaming of Iraq," Yocum said. "I worked EMS in Louisville for four years. I got used to seeing life and death situations there and I thought that would prepare me for what I would see in Iraq, and it didn't."

Seeing PTSD symptoms suffocate his friends, Yocum decided to do something. He began "Hike for Heroes," a 17-month walk across the country to raise awareness and funds for veteran suicide prevention.

After crossing 37 states and raising $1.3 million, Yocum created Active Heroes, a non-profit dedicated to providing resources and support for military members and their families.

When Fitch called, the charity was in its beginning stages. Learning about Active Heroes' mission, he became increasingly involved, even joining the board of advisors.

"When you leave the military and you get discharged, life has to have a purpose," Yocum said, "and Justin found that purpose in supporting military families, supporting veterans, helping while he was not serving anymore."

Shortly after joining, though, Fitch was diagnosed with stage four cancer. With doctors saying he only had a few months to live, Fitch made it his mission to raise as much money and awareness for Active Heroes.

In addition to fundraising, Fitch and Yocum etched out a new venture for the non-profit: a retreat for military members and their families, a sort on unconventional therapy in a peaceful part of Bullitt County.

"The doctors gave him only a few months to live, and Justin came out here to Kentucky and sat in this very location here, well before there was a bridge, or any buildings or any roads, really anything just woods, and sat here and went over some of the original plans and ideas for this location," Yocum said.

Those few months turned into two years — two years of fighting cancer and funding what he would call his final mission.

"Obviously it was a struggle for him physically, but he fought day in day out to raise money for the organizations so we could start building this retreat center," Yocum said.

By Fitch's final days, Active Heroes received hundreds of thousands of dollars.

"The last couple days of his life we were able to raise close to $300,000 for the retreat, and unfortunately in October of 2015, he passed," Yocum said. "I've never seen someone fight so hard."

Before he passed, Fitch made a video describing his journey and his hope for Active Heroes — pushing for more advocacy and continued support for veterans and their families.

"Please, I'm begging you to carry on this legacy I'm trying to start," Fitch said in one of his final videos. "A legacy where us veterans and us community citizens take care of our veterans."

As Active Heroes continues to grow, Fitch's legacy has continued. The non-profit created their 147-acre retreat center in Shepherdsville, with Fitch's brother helping cut the ribbon to the Justin Fitch family cabin in May 2016.

"It is the least that we can do to honor him by naming places after him, by still talking about him, because it is a legacy, it's a name that will live forever and the only thing we have in this life is our legacy," Jorge Pazmino, former Active Heroes board member, said.

Pazmino works as the assistant director of admission at Sullivan University, partnering with Active Heroes to provide scholarships to veterans and their families. The Active Heroes Scholarship pays 100% tuition for an associate's degree and 50% tuition for a bachelor's degree, giving veterans and their families a chance to grow through higher education.

"Now I have a mission to change lives through education," Pazmino said. "Education touches lives and changes them. It just makes sense to help veterans and families through a full-ride education."

Since its ribbon cutting, the retreat center now hosts two family cabins, hiking trails, camping grounds, an archery range and a children's playground. Despite a retreat center in Shepherdsville and headquarters in Louisville, Active Heroes also provides peer mentoring and events like Carry the Fallen and Zumbathons nationwide.

With a new dog park and amphitheater opening on June 15, Yocum said the retreat is starting a summer concert series featuring John D'amato and Trouble Junction, Gracie Yates and Doug Pinson. Active Heroes also works with local businesses like Louisville Athletic Club to bring military families discounted rates as well.

"The VA supports medically, but it's not family-oriented," Pazmino. "This is a place of healing, this is a place where veterans can be themselves."

And for Yocum, the growth of the charity all comes down to the support of one person: Justin Fitch. 

"We set a lot of ambitious goals we often laughed about how long it would take to get to this point, but we did it brother," Yocum said. "We, step by step, we keep accomplishing these goals, that we talked about...and we keep fighting the fight day in day out, to keep building this location to really make you proud."

For more information about Active Heroes, its retreat center or its scholarship, visit activeheroes.org. To help raise money and keep Justin Fitch's final mission alive, visit activeheroes.org/final-mission/.

Active Heroes's story will air Wednesday at 11 p.m.

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