Two Marine Corps veterans are walking from Ventura County to their ranch in Dulzura on a mission to change lives â€” both for veterans living on the streets and for homeless animals that fill shelters.
The two veterans â€” Kalani Creutzburg and Nate Shoemer â€” are walking to draw attention to their charity and to raise money they say is needed to buy the land on which it sits.
Cammies & Canines, their non-profit organization, sits on a 289-acre ranch in a valley in Dulzura. The ranch is a sanctuary for homeless veterans and for rescued dogs being readied for adoption and trained for service.
The pair are walking 22 miles per day, from Sept.1-Sept. 11, to highlight the military and veteran suicides the United States faces every day, as September is Suicide Awareness Month.
Creutzburg and Shoemer each will carry 50-pound packs to symbolize the emotional load many veterans carry with them. They will be updating their progress on the organizationâ€™s Facebook page and via Facebook Live.
While the non-profit works with people and animals alike, Creutzburg, who founded the organization, said empowering veterans to get off the street was its first mission.
The expansive grounds, he said, have â€śhealing power.â€ť
â€śWe focus on the internal, rather than the external,â€ť Creutzburg said. â€śWe try to dig deeper into the heart and soul of a person and figure out what got you to be homeless in the first place.â€ť
Creutzburg, a former major in the Marines, said he had experienced homelessness himself and understood how it could trap someone.
â€śI was homeless overnight because of a divorce,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™m a Marine Corps major. I had no idea being homeless was in the realm of possibility for me.â€ť
As of right now, Creutzburg said, there are 10 residents at the ranch, including homeless veterans and dog trainers. Residents are building and installing bunk beds. Once thatâ€™s done, he said, the group will have room for 10 more.
Shoemer, a former staff sergeant in the Marines, lives on the ranch with Creutzburg. Shoemer, the former host of the Animal Planet show â€śRescue Dog to Super Dog,â€ť trains rescued dogs at the ranch, some of which are paired with homeless veterans for adoption.
â€śThereâ€™s a certain healing bond that comes from dogs,â€ť Shoemer said. â€śIâ€™ve had dogs ever since Iâ€™ve been out of the Marine Corpsâ€¦ Thatâ€™s a huge part of the healing process.â€ť
Creutzburg said the program was designed to empower homeless veterans to address the factors in their own lives that contributed to their situations.
â€śWeâ€™re helping these veterans rediscover who they already are inside, but theyâ€™re struggling with it,â€ť he said, adding that he was diagnosed with PTSD when he left the Marines. â€śWe could sit here and be victims, or we could take life by the horns and do something about it. (In the) 289 acres out here, there is not any space for victim-hood.â€ť
The ranch is a sober-living environment where residents are expected to contribute to the daily workload that comes with living on a working ranch, including tending chickens, goats â€” and the dogs.
Part of the program Creutzburg and Shoemer talked about was weekly conversations circles where residents will sit around a fire, talk and â€” importantly, Creutzburg said â€” listen.
â€śWeâ€™ll sit there for hours â€” doesnâ€™t matter,â€ť he said. â€śHealing starts the moment somebody feels like theyâ€™re being heard.â€ť
Creutzburg said the experience is different from San Diegoâ€™s homeless tents, which he said do nothing to address what causes people to experience homelessness in the first place.
â€śWhen theyâ€™re out there, theyâ€™re in the state of mind for survival,â€ť he said. â€śHere, thereâ€™s safety, thereâ€™s trust.â€ť
Shoemer runs the â€ścaninesâ€ť side of Cammies & Canines. He described his mission as to rescue dogs, train service dogs for the disabled and to empower the disabled to train the dogs themselves. He said the group also trains dog trainers.
The dogs are not forced on homeless veterans, but Shoemer said that canine companionship was another tool the program offered people.
When Bryan Firth, an Army veteran, arrived by bus in San Diego, he had no place to go. He ended up at the veteranâ€™s tent in Point Loma. He is now a resident at Cammies & Canines, where he works as a handyman.
â€śI was staying in the vet tent over in sports arena,â€ť he said, â€śno place to go, nothing going for me. I had to start from scratch. And (then) I met Kalani.â€ť
Firth said his role at the ranch gives him a sense of place and purpose.
â€śI have a mission here,â€ť he said. â€śI want to help veterans in San Diego and the rest of the state and get them off the streets. I want to show them that this can be done. We did it in uniform every single day.â€ť
Another veteran at the ranch, Tulei Afoa, sat packing his bags recently on his last day in the program.
â€śThe program has shown me so many different struggles that I had that I wasnâ€™t aware of,â€ť he said. â€śI was hesitant at first because I wasnâ€™t sure. But when I saw the (YouTube) video of what was happening here, I got excited about the program.â€ť
Afoa, who served in the Marines in the 1970s, said he struggled with drugs and alcohol but is now two years and four months sober.
â€śRelapse has not been part of my program,â€ť he said. â€śHere at this ranch is where the real work began. We have groups with Nate and Kalani and the guys that are here. Iâ€™m not processing it by myself.â€ť
Afoa was leaving after just a couple of months. His youngest son, who is in the Army stationed in Washington state, invited his father to move in with his family. Afoa would be living with his son, daughter-in-law and grandson.
He held back tears as he talked about what awaited him off the ranch.
â€śIâ€™m torn,â€ť he said. â€śIâ€™m a mess right now. Iâ€™m walking around like a zombie. My heart is torn because I love this place so much.â€ť
Creutzburg said Afoa was an example of the effectiveness of Cammies & Canines.
â€śSuccess for him was being reintegrated with his family,â€ť Creutzburg said. â€śHeâ€™s been on the run for years, caught up in the street life. Heâ€™s a grandpa, but in his mind he was still very much a kid running the streets.â€ť
Homeless veterans are not the only veterans taking advantage of what the ranch has to offer.
Christy Johnson, who is training Firthâ€™s dog Azaria, came to Cammies & Canines from DeSoto, Kansas. She served ten years in the Army before being medically retired. Sheâ€™s now learning to be a dog trainer.
The walk from Ventura County has another purpose besides raising awareness for veteran suicides. The pair is also trying to raise the money Creutzburg said is needed to continue and expand operations â€” about $300,000.
â€śGive me a chance, let me get on this property and build the programs and show the community that we can do what we say weâ€™re gonna do,â€ť he said.
The property, known as the Marquez Ranch, is owned by a local family.
â€śWe got this property about five months ago,â€ť Creutzburg said. â€śThe one thing (the Marquez family) have agreed on is they love what Cammies and Canines does. They want to see their property…go towards something good.â€ť
The $300,000, according to Creutzburg, is whatâ€™s needed to close escrow.
â€śThis property, the asking price is $1.39 million,â€ť he said. â€śI was homeless in 2015, I have no idea what a million dollars looks like. Give me a chance, let me get on this property and build the programs and show the community that we can do what we say weâ€™re gonna do, and weâ€™ll let the community stand behind us. Weâ€™ll let the community buy this property.â€ť
He said the veterans themselves provide the labor needed to maintain the property.
â€śAll these structures, they need a little TLC,â€ť he said. â€śBut, thatâ€™s work that we could do. Let these veterans do something and take pride in what theyâ€™re doing. They will build this place up like that. Itâ€™s all about empowering these folks.â€ť
Among the things Creutzburg wants to do is continue renovating the three apartments that residents share, and expanding capacity.
The ranch also has a recreational vehicle park with hookups for up to 40 RVs. Creutzburg said he wants to build a tiny home village so more veterans can move to the property.
â€śTo me, this is the most valuable thing about this property,â€ť he said. â€śOnce we raise money and close escrow, we are going all out, and this will be a true oasis, not just for our program, but any other program thatâ€™s out there dedicated to helping vets.â€ť
The pair is updating progress daily on Facebook.