So I’ve tried to write this probably close to 100 times since my father died. How do you explain why you started a company when its origin is so painful. I will do my best. Please know, I am not a writer but I do have some things that need to be said. Please be patient as I open my heart.
May 23, 2017. I wasn’t in the states when it happened, I don’t remember the news reports. I don’t remember having to rush to the scene. I was actually out of the country. Walking through the streets of London with my family. I got a text from my brother asking if I could talk. Even now there is a strange weakness that comes over me thinking about that moment. I told him I needed to get to an area I had a signal and I would FaceTime him. A few minutes later I got back to our hotel and I FaceTimed my brother. The backdrop seemed strange when I saw him. Not something I was familiar with. A cold white background, almost sterile. And then my sister came into view. I immediately knew, at that moment, something was wrong. It’s hard to explain. There is a connection between siblings that you just know. My brother proceeded to communicate a vague situation in a very delicate way. It wasn’t that he beat around the bush about what happened, he just didn’t want me to know everything until he knew he could be there for me. And then the words came “dad is gone”. Everything else is a blur. Like a flash of bright light and a deafening silence… The madness of London was all around and I couldn’t see or hear anything. And yet at the same time a million thoughts running through my head. Maybe this was a blessing? You see, my father suffered for years and years. In a sense, it was a relief that he had passed because he was not suffering anymore. But what I had yet to learn was just how he passed. My brother and sister didn’t want me to know exactly what happened. In fact I distinctly remember my brother saying to me, “we wanted you to know before you saw anything on the news” followed by “Do NOT look for anything, wait till you come home. Please…” I remember falling to the ground right in the streets of London because my knees had no strength to hold me anymore. A weight that is unimaginable pushed me to the floor. The look on my brother and sisters face was so helpless because they were watching their little brother in pain thousands of miles away and could do nothing. I honestly don’t remember anything else of our conversation. I was weak and nauseous, battling between anger and sorrow. After I got off the phone, I walked to the end of the block, hundreds of people were going about their evening, none were privy to my pain. I remember thinking “What did I say last… were we ok? How is my Ma dealing with this?” A million thoughts rushing like someone just opened a faucet in my brain. And then…blank. I rushed up to my hotel room. I opened up my laptop because I had to know what happened. What I found – no news article, no report, only a video. The neighbor across from my parents house, for whatever insane reason, videoed the last moments of my dad’s life. A video that to this day (years later) still replays almost every night when I close my eyes. What I saw was horrific. This is how I found out how my father died on May 23, 2017.
My father and I didn’t have the greatest relationship. I think it may be because we both had similar personalities. I tend to want to lead and sadly struggle with an authority problem. He was the same way. At a young age, as any son would do, I grew to admire the strength of my father. He was a Marine! Is there anything greater than a Marine? I didn’t think so. My father wore the badge of a Marine as a tattoo on his left arm. The bulldog. Standing at only 5’7″ he was the toughest man I knew. The only man I ever feared. A man that would never quit, could work all day long and never take a break. Would push his body to a point I never understood. His strengths were his love for his family, his love for God and his willingness to die for both. He adored my mother. He would call her his papillon (butterfly in French). And he loved his children the best way he knew how, for some it would be hard to see from the outside. My father battled his demons for years and years. That was one of his weaknesses.
In 1960 my father was given an ultimatum by my Pepe (grandfather). Either he finished high school and get his GED or he was going to ship him out to the military. My father never made it past ninth grade. He went to the Naval recruiting office, but with the background and record my father had the Navy wouldn’t take him. He proceeded to the Air Force, again they wouldn’t take him. Then the army, still they wouldn’t take him. The last resort my father had was the Marines. At 5’7″ and 100 pounds, that’s not what the Marines we’re looking for, but they took him anyways. He served from 1960 to 1965. His records show that his tours included Haiti and Puerto Rico. He served through the Bay of Pigs, the Cold War and the Cuban Crisis, (These facts only discovered after his death). My father never spoke to us about the time he served. Not because he was not proud of serving. I think it’s because he was ashamed of what he did, what he saw. And that’s the part we still don’t know. Something happen in time period that would change the rest of his life and ultimately effect ours. Shortly after getting out of the Marines my father met my mother. They were married in 1966. Soon after my sister came then two years later my brother. In 1972, my father who struggled for years with the demons that he battled in his mind finally found Hope. A Pastor came to his house, saw a broken, beat up man and offered him the hope of Christ. Thinking this Pastor was a con man, he threw him out. But time after time this Pastor came back around trying to help my father. When it got to a point that he knew he could trust him, he finally sat down to listen. My father surrendered his life to the Lord. A year later I was born. In July of 1973. My father would always tell me that I was a first baby he ever held. He was a hard man just longing for peace. And that’s what Christ gave him, peace.
I always joke that I went through 18 years of Boot Camp. That’s what it felt like. Being woken up in the morning with my dad yelling “feet on the floor”, and if we didn’t immediately get both feet on the floor he would grab us by our toes and drag us out of bed. From teaching my brother and I to never back down from a fight no matter how big the other guy was, to taking care of the ones we love at all costs. He made sure we were not quitters, that we were respectful, and that we were willing to stand for and die for what we believed in. We were being trained to be warriors in the politest sense. Beasts amongst sheep. Savage Gentleman. We may not have had the typical upbringing, and we have memories some will never understand. My father taught me how to use my hands. Even at a young age he taught me carpentry skills. After the Marines, he began working in construction and ultimately started his own company, Dome construction. We didn’t get along very well in the later part of my teens. My dad and I were at odds on a lot of things. He was very used to saying things and people would just accept it and go along with it. That’s how he worked. I was quite the opposite. If someone told me something I had to understand why. That was the main cause of our conflict, not that I questioned my father, I questioned everything, but my respect for him was like no other.
In the first months of 1991 I decided to join the Marines. The Gulf war was in full swing and I wanted so bad to get in on it. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father. I understood the pride of being a Marine. I wanted to be one of the “Few” and I knew that my dad would be proud of me. So I went down to the recruiting office in Brockton, Mass on day after school with a good friend of mine. We both signed up, took our test and got our papers. All I needed was my dads signature because I was only 17. I was so proud to bring my dad the papers, knowing that he would be so proud. But, he wasn’t. He was just the opposite. I don’t think I ever remember my dad being so upset and disappointed with me. It made me so mad and bitter towards him. How could a die hard Marine NOT want his son to follow in his footsteps? There’s a certain sense in a young man that his greatest desire is for his father to be proud of him. In my mind there was nothing that would make my father more proud than for me to serve my country. When he refused to sign the papers it not only crushed my spirit but it crushed my desire to do anything that would make my father proud. And sadly that message would resonate for years and years. You see, I never really understood why a man that was so devout to the creed of a marine would not allow his son to follow in his footsteps. If there’s so much pride so much glory in the title itself why wouldn’t he want that for his son? I never really understood.
Mothers day, 2017. This would be the last time I would see him. Ever. We went to my parents house for Mothers day. As usual, my father stayed upstairs, as he continued to struggle with being in a group of people due to the noise and having a hard time focusing on more than one conversation. We had dessert and coffee with my Ma. Shared many laughs, memories and hugs. She told us how my dad was on a new medication and was doing really good. When it was almost time to go my mother said to me “Go see your father one last time…” We both gave each other a look, I knew what she meant, but the words will always ring in my head. So I headed up the stairs to see my dad… What happened next I was not prepared for. My father, who had a hard time standing, got out of his chair, hugged me, and said “My Joshua….Yehoshu’a”. He always called me Yehoshu’a, it means “My God who saves”. I gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek. He sat back down and we began to talk. I figured we would just have a quick conversation so I didn’t sit down. He immediately began talking about random things, but things that he knew I would want to talk about. I told him about the trip I was leaving for the next day. A trip to Germany and England. He got so excited. He had just watched a documentary about Martin Luther. I explained that’s why we were going to Germany. It was the 500 year anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 thesis on the door of the Church. And we were doing a tour of that church. He grabbed my hand and said, “Josh, I want to see that door!” I told him I would take a pic and send it to Ma for him. He was like a kid. So happy, so excited. Understand, it had been years since we had a healthy conversation. Something was different. He began to show me all the research he was doing about the drug that the VA put him on… He said something was not right. Paper after paper he showed me the facts, statistics, the numbers. “Josh” he said “We are losing too many Veterans. 22 A DAY!! Something is killing them. It’s gotta stop. Someone has to stop it!” I knew my dad struggled with PTSD. I knew they had him on different drugs for it. But I never really understood what could happen. I, sadly, blew off that part of the conversation. I mentioned to him that the VA had a hotline for Veterans. He said “They just talk you off the ledge, they don’t followup. Thats when I realized my father had called the hotline at some point. He had talked about Veteran suicide over and over… It bothered him. My mother later told me that for days on end he was obsessed with so many Veterans losing their lives. 22 a day. Little did I know that nine days later, he would be one of the 22. I left my father that day, not even take the time to sit down, and would never see him again.
The next part of this story will be extremely edited and very vague for the sake of privacy for the family. Some things do not need to be said or shared.
May 23, 2017. I can not tell you the exact events that happened. Something was wrong with my father. He couldn’t take the medication he was recently given. He struggled with the effects. So he decided to get off it. For days leading up to this point he tried over and over pleading for his doctor at the VA to call him back. No one ever called. He hadn’t slept, he couldn’t fall asleep. His mind was going a mile a minute. Memory after memory haunting him. On the night of May 22, he would stand by the bedside of my mother, all night, talking about memories he “had to get out of his head”. When the morning came she told him that she was taking him to the hospital. Something wasn’t right. He began to act irrational. Like he wasn’t in his right mind. Something was happening to his brain. Most of the facts are unclear even now. Minutes later my father was gone. Forever.
I can still hear the video in my head, I can see the image of my fathers last second alive. It replays for me almost every night when I close my eyes. I hate to fall asleep. Sometimes I cant. The image will never leave me. It’s something no son should ever see. This 73 year old, USMC soldier who fought in wars, defended our country’s flag, and did his tours on foreign soil, ultimately lost his life in an unseen war under the same flag he fought to defend on the soil that he swore to protect.
My trip to Germany and England is void in my memory. But I remember getting off the plane. It had been three days since it happened. My brother and sister wanted to wait to tell me what happened until I got back to the states. When we got off the plane, countless people showed up to welcome us. I tried to be strong, but how?? Who could be strong through this? I began to break down. It took almost a week and a half before we could lay my father to rest. So many strings to jump over with the VA. We just wanted him to be buried like a Marine. With the flag draped on the casket, the 21 gun salute and marine pallbearers. After many phone calls by my brother, they finally agreed to allow him to receive full honers at his funeral. Due to the circumstances of his death we could only have immediate family. Report depicted a man that was crazy, they had no idea what really happened to him. So many things said that were not true. My parents friends couldn’t even be there. Just his children and their families. A small gathering at the Knoxville National Cemetery. We laid him to rest among Heroes….
The next year was the worst year for me. Sleepless nights, regrets, questions. Non stop. Never ending. I had a lot of anger about what happened. Questions about what had caused it. What could I have done? What did I say to him last? How did I fail? So many questions… And amongst the questions of why, came some of the last concerns of my father. “We are losing too many Veterans. 22 A DAY!! Something is killing them. It’s gotta stop. Someone has to stop it!” This would replay in my head over and over. Someone has to stop it. But who? Surely not me. Who am I? What do I have to offer? HOPE… I had hope. Hope that there is peace, that there is purpose that there is a plan. Hope that one can be in your darkest part of their mind and yet know that someone is there for you. Hope that no matter what you have done, there is forgiveness. I set out on a mission. A mission to change the number of Veterans who lose their life to PTSD. I didn’t know how I was going to do it, I just knew I HAD to try. My first plan of action was to design a shirt for my father. Something that would symbolize not just him but ALL Veterans that fight the unseen war. The icon… Phoenix.
The name Phoenix Gear was chosen because of what the Phoenix symbolizes- to RISE from the ashes and emerge from a catastrophe stronger and more powerful than before. Thats just what this is. A Phoenix. “Forged in the Fire of Tragedy, Hope Rises from the Ashes.” The Phoenix has become a symbol of hope, brotherhood and safety to those who bear it. A symbol of strength and endurance. A conversation piece to those who need to talk and those who are willing to listen. Rising from the Ashes of tragedy a New, Stronger, Bolder Phoenix will come. How many Veterans are falling, feeling like they can not go on, like no one will understand their pain? Its time for them to rise from the ashes and find hope. That was my mission. I had to do something. The first shirt. “22 Stars”. The symbol for all to see that there is hope. Whether you are a Veteran that is battling PTSD or a family that is effected by the battle, the 22 Star shirt is a symbol of hope.
We wanted to do something more than just one shirt. We wanted to make it big so, after another year of many hard decisions, sacrifice and planning we decided to start “Phoenix Gear”: An American Apparel Co. Patriot owned – Serving our Veterans. The plan was to design a couple shirts, sell them and donate to other non-profit companies. That was the plan, but we know things never go as planned. We launched the company on May 23rd 2019. Exactly 2 years after my father passed. We wanted it to be symbolic and a constant reminder of why we are doing this. It wasn’t to own a huge company, it was to change lives. Thats our focus, our mission. Over the next couple months we were welcomed with open arms at events, on social media, and on the news. We were taking the tragic event of what had happened, and turning it into something that would change lives.
I have spoken to hundreds of Veterans, prayed with them and for them. I have spoken with Crisis Response Team and Police departments. We have come up with campaigns, slogans and goals! Became an ambassador for Mission 22 and given away countless shirts all in the name of HOPE. Our goal now has changed from when we started. We are not just an apparel company, we are a lighthouse. A beacon of hope to anyone, everyone who is struggling. PTS can change your life, effect your family and cost you everything… UNLESS you have hope.
In 2022 we began a greater mission, Mission Phoenix. With a goal to open a wellness center that actively works with families struggling with PTS from combat. Our Goal:To identify and eradicate the stigma of combat related PTS that is taking so many of our Veteran lives;To train Veterans to Rise out of the ashes of their trauma and paint hrough comprehensive programs, events and hands on training;To offer Hope in the form of counseling, career opportunities and focused conversation.
Understand, the event that would change my life, took me three years before I have really spoken about what went on inside me. I am hoping that through this blog it might reach someone that may feel like there is not hope… There is hope. There is Peace. There is life after PTS. If you want to know more about HOPE please check out our blog. https://missionphoenix.org/blog/hope-rising/
We are looking forward to what God has in store for us in the future. And we would ask that you would continue to be faithful in your support and prayers. If you want to do more to help, please donate, spread the word about our company. If you have social media, tag us, repost and like our posts. It will help us get noticed by more people. Influencers? Are we a company you can feel good about sharing? You all have the power to impact thousands. Feature our company in your feed for one day. It could impact the so many lives. And as always go to our website MissionPhoenix.org and get some gear! We appreciate you all! Without you we could never have gotten to where we are this year. Thank you.
Remember: PTSD – Please Talk to Someone Daily.
CEO | Mission Phoenix
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