Retired Coast Guard veteran Jimmy Flynn donates profits from his mulch business to Wounded Warrior Project.
“Giving back to veterans, one yard at a time.”
Story by Peter Cagno
Photos by Loren Probish
That’s the maxim of Mission Mulch, a company based in Harrisonburg that donates $1 to the Wounded Warrior Project for every square yard of mulch sold. Founded by Jimmy Flynn in 2015, Mission Mulch is on pace to donate $8,000 this year, with hopes to increase that number in the future.
Flynn, a JMU (’10) alumnus, was inspired to donate to the Wounded Warrior Project after serving in the U.S. Coast Guard. During his senior year at JMU, Flynn enrolled in the Delayed Entry Program and was sent to Cape May, New Jersey shortly after graduation. Fast-forward five weeks of basic training and Flynn was sent to Marina del Rey, California, where he was stationed on the Halibut — a 91-foot Marine Protector-class coastal patrol boat. The main duties of the Halibut were search and rescue missions, and to patrol the waters for Mexican drug smugglers. Being a member of a small, 12-man crew was ideal training for Flynn. “You learn so many more skills being on a small ship,” Flynn said. “You have to take on the roles of three people. It was very educational but also very demanding.”
What happened next in his journey ultimately became the impetus for Flynn’s passion to give back to veterans: a bloody altercation with Mexican drug smugglers. There are two main ways drugs are smuggled by sea into the U.S. from Mexico: one is where the smugglers run their boat, called a panga, ashore, abandon it and bring the drugs in from the beach. The other way is when a panga is met by a second boat and the drugs are exchanged and smuggled in. While Flynn initially experienced little action during his service, all that changed on the night of Dec. 2, 2012. While on a routine patrol off the California coast, Flynn and the crew of the Halibut received an order to patrol the area near Port Hueneme when a surveillance aircraft spotted a suspicious boat.
The Halibut approached the boat, which Flynn noted had two 50-gallon fuel drums and was in an area with rough waters and poor fishing. The crew boarded the boat and discovered the boat was likely en route to pick up drugs. Following the fugitives’ apprehension, the Halibut was ordered to pursue another suspicious boat three miles away. This is where things went south. Flynn was manning the Forward Looking Infrared Camera, a heat-sensing camera that allowed the Halibut to approach the enemy boat with no lights. As the Halibut grew closer to the panga, a four-man boarding team was deployed on an inflatable boat to board the panga. The plan was to to corner the panga into a cove, board the Mexican smugglers’ boat and apprehend the crew. “In a flash everything changed,” Flynn said.
As soon as the two boats activated its lights and sirens, the panga shifted its aim and rammed into the side of the boarding team’s vessel, ejecting two crew members. “I was on the FLIR so all I could see was the heat from their heads bobbing in the water,” Flynn said. “It looked like two basketballs floating there. I couldn’t tell if it was them or us.” The panga then throttled again into the boarding vessel, running over the two bodies in the water and killing Chief Petty Officer Terrell Horne III. Flynn recalled the severity of the incident, but noted that he was eerily calm during the ordeal. “Everyone else was crying and being very emotional,” Flynn said. “I just remember being stone cold about it. That’s not normal, that’s not how you’re supposed to act, but I know that was just my mind saying, ‘No, we’re not dealing with this right now.’”
For the next few months Flynn noted that his mental health was dwindling and he began to act strangely and started showing early symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. “I wasn’t sleeping well and I found myself getting angry all the time at people I loved,” he said. His PTSD symptoms began to further interfere with his daily life when his captain asked him to tell the rest of the unit about the incident. “I was telling the story and I was shaking and had tears in my eyes,” he said. “It wasn’t good.”
Shortly after, while stationed in Puerto Rico, Flynn witnessed a rescue-gone-wrong where two Haitian migrants were thrown overboard and unaccounted for — it was all getting to be too much for him. “We never caught the guy — we didn’t take it seriously,” Flynn said. “I thought that would be something we took seriously, but that’s just how the game is played.” Upon his return from testifying at the murder trial of Horne, Flynn thought that the guilty verdict would finally be the end of his nightmare, but things only intensified from there. A military psychologist diagnosed him with combat-related PTSD and instructed him to go to the hospital, which he wasn’t particularly fond of. Long story short, the psychologist called the police and they detained Flynn and took him to the hospital where he would remain for eight days without a change of clothes. He felt betrayed by not only his crew mates of the Sapelo, but by the entire Coast Guard because no one brought him a change of clothes.
Following another turbulent episode with a psychologist, Flynn was admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, where he had an existential realization. “I saw a guy with no waist. He’d been blown up by an IED [improvised explosive device] and he was smiling,” Flynn said. “I thought, ‘If that guy is smiling, then I can too.’ That’s when my whole attitude started changing. I made the decision that when I get out of the service I’m going to give back to the Wounded Warrior Project.” Flynn notes the importance of giving back to veterans because they typically have a hard time assimilating back into civilian society. “You go from a world where people are trying to kill you and come back to a world where people’s biggest concern is what kind of coffee they’re going to have,” Flynn said. “People stress about the little things and you really just feel like you can’t relate.”
Flynn also notes the reassimilation difficulties are due in part to inefficiencies from the Veteran’s Association. Flynn’s father, Jim, agreed, noting that the Coast Guard and the VA didn’t help his son enough with his mental instability and “let him down in nearly every way imaginable.” Flynn’s roommate at Walter Reed, Aaron Miller, said this is an unfortunate and common occurrence. “Each veteran has a different experience with the VA,” Miller said. “I’m probably one of the only people I know that has had positive experiences with the VA.” Flynn continues to see a civilian psychologist once a week, but disclosed that he stopped taking his five prescribed medicines “cold turkey.” “The problem is they try to treat every different symptom with a pill, instead of trying to treat the root cause,” Flynn said. Flynn doesn’t believe the VA is doing enough to help wounded veterans assimilate back into society, something he hopes to change through Mission Mulch.
“When you’re in the service, you know you’re serving your country. They tell you what to do and you do it,” Flynn said. “Once you leave, it’s this giant void. That is what I would say is the hardest transition: finding a purpose in life again to really work for … a lot of these guys don’t get help. That was me for two years and it damn near killed me.” While moving back to Harrisonburg and starting a mulch business from scratch was certainly not Jimmy Flynn’s original plan after graduating from JMU, his commitment to service and passion for helping others has him right where he wants to be.