A few neighbors in John Chmela’s hometown of Georgetown, Kentucky, are making it particularly difficult for him to expand his mission to help at-risk veterans. UncoverDC spoke with Chmela on Monday about Queenslake Farm and how he and his wife are helping veterans there. Chmela and his wife Claire offered a home on separate acreage on the other side of their Queenslake Farm property to 5 veterans in March, hoping to alleviate their loneliness and create a community of support for battle-worn veterans.
According to Chmela, some neighbors hav been particularly focused on trying to remove struggling veterans from a home on his sprawling property. As a result, he has a county “zoning board breathing down his back” and what he believes to be an unnecessary battle with some in his community.
Queenslake Farm: Event Center and Respite for Veterans
In 2017, Chmela “showed up with a pushmower” after he purchased the 140-acre horse farm called Queenslake Farm. His wife’s dream was to retire on a horse farm, and that dream set Chmela in motion. Queenslake Farm doubles as an event center. The couple hosts a wide range of events there, some of which include an open invitation to at-risk groups of veterans who travel there throughout the year to enjoy camaraderie while fishing on its 40-acre lake or any number of activities on the property. The Chmelas also board horses, and the property is home to a small bed and breakfast and overflow room, as well as some campers around the lake in case the house gets full.
Shortly after the Chmelas moved in, they got a “knock on the door from a gentleman named Chuck Reed.” A former serviceman himself, Reed is now the executive director of an organization called the Kentucky Wounded Warriors. Reed shared the horrifying statistics related to suicide in the veteran community. The isolation experienced by many veterans led Chmela to his charitable efforts on their behalf. “A 31-year recovered alcoholic,” Chmela is open about his struggles with mental health. Reed’s story resonated. Chmela explains what he has been doing since 2018 and why:
“As it turns out, veterans are committing suicide in unprecedented numbers. I think the number right now is about 20 a day. Reed told me that he noticed a pattern of behavior in veterans who commit suicide. He said that a precursor to suicide for many veterans is almost always about 90 days or more of isolation. They may live alone, or they are homeless. And for whatever reason, three months go by. They don’t call anyone. And if you’re suffering from PTSD or schizophrenia or paranoia or any one of the myriad battle-related mental illnesses, it is a long time to go it alone. Some may get to a level of psychosis [and] that makes them extremely high risk for suicide.
What we do as a charity is we get large groups of veterans together, as many as we can get, and we invite them out for multi-day excursions where they come hunting or they camp or fish or hike, and they just hang out with each other. And just by doing that, just by getting together with other veterans and doing something in the outdoors, it does wonders for their mental health. It completely resets that 90-day clock. And if we do it every 30 days or 60 days, many never get into that level of psychosis, and they never commit suicide.
So I said to Chuck, here’s the gate code; knock yourself out. Come as often as you like. So, since 2018, we’ve had veterans coming here every year. Every couple of months, they call me up and say we’re bringing out another group. They come out. We bring them coffee in the morning and have a big bonfire at night. They eat together, and when they catch fish, we skin them and let them take the fish home. It’s just this beautiful thing. And it has expanded to other activities like our yearly event in October called the Mogadishu Mile. It is a military fitness competition for retired vets, military and first responders.”
Approximately 22 Veterans commit suicide EACH. DAY. Would at least 22 of my Twitter friends please retweet? Veterans Crisis LifeLine Dial 988 then press 1, or text 988, 24 hours a day. HELP is available!
God Bless 🇺🇸✝️ pic.twitter.com/iZzukUjwlh
— ✨✨🇺🇸Johnny🇺🇸✨✨ (@johnbiamon) August 10, 2023
Wanting to do more, Chmela opened a home on his 5-acre property to the veterans in response to a larger community project run by a local woman. The idea arose from a serendipitous conversation with the young woman. While talking, Chmela soon realized that his mission meshed well with hers. She places veterans in homes together so they never have to live alone, and he has the space to help. “She usually places five veterans under one roof, drives them to their appointments, and supplies housekeepers to feed them and clean the homes,” said Chmela. As it turns out, Chmela’s sister had just moved out of a home near his farm. He offered to house veterans to make lifesaving support a daily occurrence. By living together, the clock is reset every single day.
Chmela plans to expand the project to other states and is actively looking at other properties. He wants to create “freedom communities” where veterans can come and live with other veterans. He also wants to build another larger home on his property if he can find the support and funds. Jim Beam has already offered “mountains of 4 by 4 beams that used to be the shelving that held their bourbon barrels,” Chmela shared.
Locals Question Housing of Veterans
These dreams met a brick wall when some in the local community began to rebel. Some neighbors took issue with his housing veterans in a home on his property. According to Chmela, the fear is that the veterans might do something dangerous due to their alleged mental health issues. There are also allegations he is “running a business” because he is hosting the veterans, but he is doing nothing of the sort. He has researched the local zoning laws and has yet to find the language “for or against housing” for a small number of guests in a residential home. The veterans merely live there. They are also much healthier because they live together on the tranquil property.
Nevertheless, some neighbors in the community allegedly complained to the zoning board. As a result of their opposition, Chmela now has the zoning board on his back “about the altruistic stuff [he] is doing.” In the late spring, the zoning board asked him to file a petition for a conditional use permit. Chmela complied to appease his neighbors but withdrew it before the Aug. 3 meeting when he realized the conditional use permit was not necessary for residential living. Further research showed a conditional use permit is reserved for those who want to run a business out of a home, something Chmela “has no intention of doing.”
When the board told residents at the Aug. 3 meeting that Chmela removed his permit application, it reignited the controversy. He says some neighbors are still bent out of shape, and the zoning board is now “conducting an investigation.” Now he is just waiting for another shoe to drop.
On A Mission of Faith to Help At-Risk Veterans
Chmela is not interested in irritating neighbors or causing undue friction in his community. He just wants to help veterans in need. He told UncoverDC that he would much rather continue to help veterans than “kick the beehive. Right now. I’m on a mission of faith. It’s a leap of faith. I want to serve the greater good. And I’m way outside my comfort zone. But lives are being saved by these veterans being together. And if I am commanded to go to court and then asked to throw veterans out on the street?! When I say they aren’t leaving over my dead body, we will go and fight.
He even told UncoverDC he had reservations about being interviewed for this article because it might ruffle more feathers or detract from his primary mission; helping veterans in need. Chmela continued:
“But really, my main purpose is to push the needle in the direction of helping the veterans as opposed to hurting them. No matter how fun or unfun the game is, we all lose if the cops come in and physically remove the veterans from my house. They are safe. None of them are bedridden. We are helping them. I want that to be the story here. And we need support to do that.”
If you would like to participate or volunteer for the Mogadishu Mile Military Fitness competition at Queenslake on October 14th, 2023 at 9am, VISIT: https://tinyurl.com/yf9xsxby