When I learned that LTC (retired) Gordon Cucullu and Chris Fontana, the owners and operators of The Valhalla Project, were in need of assistance due to a serious injury suffered by Gordon, a group of friends and I immediately began finding ways to help. Not satisfied with fundraisers and spreading the word, I decided that I would skip SHOT show this year, which would have been my first SHOT appearance, and take a trip to Arkansas instead.
I’m sure many of you have heard about The Valhalla Project by now, thanks in no small part to Kerry Patton, who is arranging other aid trips to Valhalla in the coming weeks. But, for a quick rundown, Valhalla is a veteran’s reintegration project run by a retired Special Forces officer, Gordon, and his wife. But, it is much more than that. It is an education facility where participants get hands-on experience and education in things like gardening, animal care, healthy living and permaculture. Described as a 100-year project, the goal is to make Valhalla as self-sufficient as possible by growing it’s own food, managing resources, and devising ingenious ways to urge nature to take its course in such a way that it benefits the property.
Some friends and I had started a fundraising and volunteer program to benefit Valhalla and we had some very good success with it. Ed Gawrelak managed our internet presence and Sheila Stephens made herself available for several radio interviews to spread the word. Dalton Fury and several other authors even got in on the action by donating signed copies of their books to our benefit auction. The response was phenomenal and several people, including Mr. Fury, purchased items from Valhalla’s “critical needs” list to further support the program. But, when I mentioned that I was going to make a trip to Valhalla myself, a few friends decided to jump on board and we made a complicated trek to the Arkansas Ozark Mountains.
Ed Gawrelak and I flew to Dallas, Texas where we linked up with Mickey Tomlin, our resident Viking, and Chris Smith, a friend of mine who is an Iraq War veteran and also a Dallas resident. Together we took a long road trip to Valhalla. We got lost, of course. But, after refusing to pull over and ask directions, or call Gordon for assistance, we finally found Valhalla. We had a list of projects in hand, provided by Chris Fontana, that needed urgent attention and we were eager to get our hands dirty.
From the moment we arrived, we were treated like family. This is not an exaggeration, or something I write to make things seem comfortable. It was actually the case. So much so, in fact, that Chris had us doing chores and helping with meals from the moment we parked the truck. And, it felt wonderful. I have to say that I haven’t met such wonderful people in a very long time. They made us feel at home. I felt at home and that is saying a lot.
Over the next couple of days, the crew and I made some needed repairs on a goat pen, put up a roof, made a gate out of material not meant for a gate, and then went to work on the greenhouse. Smitty picked up some new skills working the compound miter and table saws and we were able to modify some salvaged doors and frame them in. My SEABEE brothers and sisters would have been proud of us. But, it wasn’t all manly work. We also had many conversations around the dinner table while we ate natural foods and enjoyed some properly prepared venison.
There will be more about Valhalla in the coming days as I put more of the experience into print. I was not only impressed with the operation and the people behind it, I returned home feeling refreshed and encouraged. My primary thought since leaving Arkansas has simply been, “When can I go back?” If you would like to find out more about how you can help The Valhalla Project, stop by the Aid To Valhalla Facebook page or visit The Valhalla Project homepage.
(Main photo: The Aid to Valhalla crew pointing the way to the proper parking area. From left to right is Mickey Tomlin, Ross Elder, Ed Gawrelak, and Chris “Smitty” Smith.)