How It All Started
Ever have things all planned out, and then something comes along and throws your life on a completely different trajectory? It's happened to me a few times. Thankfully, one of those times led to the creation of Til Valhalla Project.
I joined the Marines right out of high school. I knew I had found my home - and I planned to make a career of it. But I got injured in training and again while I was serving in Afghanistan. My injuries led to me getting back stateside and discharged early.
Being someone who wanted to do his full 20 years, It crushed me. I felt like I no longer had a purpose.
Only Looking Back
2012-2013 My team and I were deployed to Sangin Valley along the Helmand River, then were relocated to help ANA efforts in Kajaki Sofla. The Marine who took this photo was hit by and I.E.D. but is thankfully O.K.
After returning to civilian life, I was in a dark place. During my deployment, I was responsible for millions of dollars worth of equipment and had a team depending on me. But back home, I couldn't even get someone to give me an entry-level job. I also had splitting headaches and was dealing with memory issues from a TBI, and the meds from the V.A. were making everything worse.
All I could focus on were the memories of my deployment, the fear, the loss, the helplessness. I worried that my time in the military would be my best days, and the rest of my life was all going to be downhill.
I started falling apart, physically and emotionally. I shut out the rest of the world. I was drinking heavily and thought about ending my life.
And I wasn't alone.
Phone Call After Phone Call
Many of the men I served with were struggling like I was and unfortunately, some lost the battle with their demons.
The toughest part of getting those phone calls of loss was not learning that someone you cared about like your own brother died by suicide. It was knowing and understanding exactly why they did it because I felt the same. If they didn’t make it, what chance did I have?
One of those calls hit me harder than the others. Cpl. Benjamin Dunston was one of my best friends and someone I looked up to. I had just talked to him. But a few days later, I learned he had taken his own life.
Something broke inside me, and I went numb. I was at my lowest point, I was angry.
I thought about how the world would soon forget about him and his service because he died from the war at home and not overseas.
When does a Hero stop being a Hero? To me, never.
He wouldn’t get a proper burial, he wouldn’t have a post office named after him, he wouldn’t have his name etched on a iconic wall. Because he was lucky enough to make it from from our combat deployment, to die by his own hand, he would be forgotten by the masses. I set out to carry not only his legacy but of ALL Heroes, because Heroes deserve to be honored no matter how they left this world.
The First Plaque
2016 I built the very first plaque to carry Dunstons legacy, since those who pass from suicide are often not recognized.
One night I had been drinking heavily and was having a tough time dealing with losing Cpl. Dunston. I had some supplies on hand, and I told my wife, Tiffany (my rock and the co-founder of T.V.P.) that I wanted to make a memorial plaque to Honor Cpl. Dunston. She helped me, and we made that very first plaque together.
I wanted to hang the plaque on my wall, so I would always have my friend near me. But the following day, looking at the plaque was just too painful.
I knew I couldn't keep it.
I asked around and found out where Cpl. Dunston's mom lived and finally I delivered the plaque to her as a surprise.
She was so moved, she posted about it on Facebook. Lots of people saw it and wanted plaques for their loved ones. I had more requests each day. But I couldn’t ask families who lost their Hero to pay for these memorials, that to me is unacceptable, they already paid enough.
Soon, I was known as "the free plaque guy."
"The Free Plaque Guy"
Making plaques to Honor the Fallen gave me a purpose - something I hadn't had since I was in the Marines. When we began hand-delivering every plaque I made, that value compounded in ways I never knew possible.
Etching a Hero's name into a plaque ensures their legacy will live on for generations no matter how they passed. Surprise-delivering that plaque to the Hero's family and seeing that type of commendable action reminds them that this country and its citizens will never forget their Hero's service and sacrifice.
A single plaque can cost upwards of $350 to make, but I knew I could never ask the family of a Fallen Hero to pay for one. I was working two jobs one being Autozone, going to college for engineering, and making plaques in my garage each night.
I was running low on time and money and I had to choose. Become an engineer and invent things for people? Or continue Honoring Fallen Heroes?
“We have been at war for 16 years, as much as I wish someone else would take this idea to the next level so I can focus on my degree, it’s clear that the person has to be me or else it would have been done already. I can’t give up on their Legacies.”
I did engineer, and I did invent. It just came in the form of a concept the world had never seen before.
“We will hand-deliver memorial plaques to the families of Fallen Heroes and fund it with products that motivate and inspire people.”
Deciding to Go All In
People asked if I would take donations, but I didn't want to run a charity, I wanted to provide immediate value when someone provided their hard-earned money. But one day, someone said, "If you make a t-shirt or something, I'd buy that to support you." The idea for Til Valhalla Project was born.
A Name With Impact
"Valhalla" refers to "the hall of the Fallen" in Norse mythology - essentially, a wonderful afterlife for warriors. Many in the service say, "Til Valhalla, brother" or "Til Valhalla, sister" - essentially saying, "Until we meet again in Valhalla."
The mission started with one goal: Honor the Fallen with memorial plaques. I knew that no amount of work could ever bring back the friends I lost to suicide, but this was a way to impact their memory positively and make the world a better place.
Tiffany and I fulfilled the very first T.V.P. orders in my dad's garage for over a year. I would head to the post office every day to ship out the next round of tees. I knew at that time that we would have an impact, but I had no idea just what would happen in the next few years.
This is the shirt that launched T.V.P.
As more plaques came across my desk, I would notice that well over half of them were from suicide, just like my friends. I would soon ask the question:
“I am doing a great thing Honoring all these Heroes who have Fallen. But what am I doing to ensure they never end up on my memorial plaques to begin with?”
Thus, on top of my mission to Honor all who have fallen, I decided I would donate a portion of my proceeds towards providing therapy for struggling veterans.
One veteran saved = One less plaque on my desk.
Making An Impact
2019 We expanded the team and our mission to help all those struggling different types of battles so we can continue to carry legacies.
It's incredible to see proud Americans unite to support a mission they believe in. When I started T.V.P, I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams that in just a few years, it would go on to:
- Become America's fastest-growing Veteran owned clothing brand.
- Donate millions towards reducing veteran suicide.
- Make and deliver over 2,000 free memorial plaques to families of Fallen Heroes (reminding those families that we will NEVER forget their Hero's service and sacrifice).
- Employ hundreds of veterans and patriots.
- Spread our message of Honor, motivation, and inspiration to millions through online ads, billboards, and people wearing our gear.
Every single one of those achievements was only possible because of our 1 Million+ supporters who refuse to let our Heroes go forgotten.
A Humbling Experience
I am truly humbled when I think of the tangible impact every single tee shirt has had on the Veteran and Fallen Hero community. To everyone who supported T.V.P. in the past and will in the future, I say: thank you.
As I wrote earlier, T.V.P. started with one main goal: Honor the Fallen with memorial plaques. We won't stop until we make a memorial plaque for every Fallen Hero and reach a point where Veterans are at no higher risk for suicide than the general populous.
That's why we're working tirelessly to grow our mission and impact. With your support, we will:
- DOUBLE our surprise plaque deliveries.
- Release new designs that Honor the Fallen and break the stigma around talking about mental health
- Increase the hours of therapy we fund for Veterans
The Future is Bright
2020 We bought three shops on three acres totaling 25,000 square feet and outgrew it in just 4 months.
We are just getting started, and many exciting things are happening in the coming as we scale our mission! I am humbled and grateful that we have so many supporters like you who will be with us for the journey.
You’re what makes this mission great, I just created the vessel.
Keep Moving Forward,
Founder, Til Valhalla Project
Proud USMC Veteran