Jesse Johnson-Brower is a tough, tattooed Army veteran who looks like he could kick just about anyone from here to the next county. Instead, he’d rather laugh and put his arm around every veteran and first responder and ask if they need help — and then help them.
This veteran, who saw the worst an Army infantryman could see during his stint from 2000-04, had a tough transition to civilian life. It took him nine years of struggle — private and VA counselors, self-medicating, job after job — before he finally found his place as president of VetGR, a nonprofit that offers therapy, counseling and coaching to veterans and first responders. His wife Tara was with him for most of those years.
“Finally, we were introduced to people who really opened our eyes to what personal growth was. We knew nothing about personal development and a growth mindset,” Jesse Johnson-Brower said. “I asked my counselor what degree she had and decided to go to school to get that same degree.”
He enrolled in Cornerstone University’s Professional & Graduate Studies program for a degree in psychology. During the two years he took classes, Johnson-Brower and his wife were talking with couples who were experiencing the same struggles transitioning to civilian life.
“We didn’t know what we were doing, but we knew what we were going through,” Tara Johnson-Brower said. “We talked to them about what we were trying, with Jesse talking to the husband and me talking to the wife.”
Enter a series of businesses, including Johnson-Brower Promotions, an invention, a scoundrel who wanted to use their story and the invention for his own gain, and an attorney consulted about the invention whose belief in them led to a whole new path.
That attorney, Dale Rietberg at Varnum, helped the couple see that their work with veterans and their experiences and struggles were real strengths and the stuff of a successful nonprofit. They were awarded a place in the MiSpringboard Program in 2017, through which Varnum provides a certain dollar amount of pro-bono services for the organization.
“Jesse and Tara have a real heart and passion for serving veterans. What I perhaps admire most is their genuine and infectious enthusiasm for the work and life in general,” Rietberg said. “Our firm supported them through our MiSpringboard program precisely because it was the type of organization we want to be associated with and because of its potential to significantly enhance the quality of life in our community.”
“We were so honored,” Tara Johnson-Brower said. “For so long, we’d worked with others with no thought of return. To have someone do this for us was an honor.”
The first thing Jesse Johnson-Brower did in December 2017 was contact his former PGS professor, Dr. Dave Beach, to come alongside them in their desire to help veterans and first responders. Beach had just finished his doctorate and was submitting his dissertation when Johnson-Brower contacted him.
“VetGR was the answer to a couple of private prayers,” Beach said. “My dissertation looked at human suffering through trauma psychology. What we’re doing at VetGR is, instead of focusing on symptom reduction, we think about growth and reconstruction. We help vets find purpose and significance again.”
Vets and first responders, an oft-forgotten group when it comes to mental health, trauma and PTSD, participate in the VetGR program for a year. That year includes 24 PTSGR — Post-Traumatic Stress Growth and Reconstruction — therapy sessions with Beach; an individualized health and wellness program designed by Purple Heart recipient Ryan Barger, which includes nutrition and exercise programs; and, if needed, medical grade LED Red Light therapy to allow VetGR guests to move toward a pain-free life. Every guest who needs it receives a free LED Red Light therapy device.
“We want to try to get them off medications organically,” Johnson-Brower said. “One guy was on 18 meds, and we got him down to three.”
As for the health and wellness piece, “It’s no secret that if your body isn’t working, your mind isn’t working as well,” he said.
There also is a community for wives called She Will Stay (SWS), which provides a safe place for veterans’ or first responders’ wives or partners.
“I remember sitting at our kitchen table with a Vietnam vet who had multiple struggles. He put his hand on my arm and said, ‘Thank you for staying with him,’” Tara Johnson-Brower said. “I will never forget how I felt. We want to create a place for wives to feel comfortable speaking and sharing stories, for wives to say, ‘Holy moly, our normal is pretty crazy.’ We want to give them a voice, to know that sometimes in the messiness there are beautiful things.”
Jesse Johnson-Brower said he wants VetGR to be a place that “treats vets and first responders as presidentially as possible,” he said. “We want to give them the honor and respect they deserve.”
Their downtown offices at 77 Monroe Center NW are well-appointed and private with easy parking in a nearby ramp. VetGR picks up clients without transportation and sees them immediately upon initial contact.
“We could be in a church basement for free, but we want clients to feel we are treating them well and that we care,” Johnson-Brower said. “We want them to walk in and think it’s clean, smells good and be proud to come here.”
According to Beach, “We’re committed to offering an alternative to a person trying to decide between 100% disability or reclaiming his or her life.”
“These people who have served our country and as first responders in our neighborhoods are here in our backyard. There are many seeking help and the services aren’t there. We have those services here,” Johnson-Brower said. GR
Facts about VetGR
VetGR has served over 65 men and women since May 2018
Cost is $9,625 per guest for the yearlong program, all provided free of charge
VetGR serves veterans, active reservists and National Guard, first responders, and their families
Annual budget is about $375,000
VetGR President Jesse Johnson-Brower is creating HeroRaise, an online funding program similar to GoFundMe but used only for veterans and first responders. He would like to see $3 million raised by 2021 through HeroRaise. Look for a link on the VetGR website
or at heroraise.com.
“Funding is our biggest need,” said Jesse Johnson-Brower, president of VetGR. “It’s been a slow road with recurring donations about a tenth of what we need. We’ve been funding the vast majority of it ourselves.”
For those interested in donating to VetGR, visit vetgr.org. For those seeking services, contact VetGR via the website.