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‘Switching Camo’: Veteran aims to curb suicide epidemic through new TV series

Nov 03, 2017
Photo by: Submitted The show “Switching Camo” was created by Joseph Johnson, of Salem, as a way to get veterans out in the wilderness together in community. Johnson is mostly a self-taught videographer and editor, learning on the job over the past few years as he works to finish a full season of the show. Above, Johnson works with a group of volunteers to help him produce the show.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


Out on a trip to Adams County, Ohio, Frank Wade trades a deer rifle for a GoPro.

Wade is looking forward to the hunting season as much as the next guy, only for him, he gets the added benefit, of telling his comrades stories afterward by working to produce a reality TV show called Switching Camo.

The show was conceptualized by Salem native Joseph Johnson. After serving in the military, Johnson saw a need for veterans to maintain the sense of community and purpose they had while serving their country. He thought a TV show that takes veterans out hunting would be a good way to show other veterans and society as a whole that they are more than “damaged goods.”

Johnson cut his teeth in film when he moved to Ft. Campbell in Kentucky and worked part-time with Billy Hackworth filming a TV show called Bloodline. While on a hunting trip, Johnson was lying in a tent one night and decided it was his turn to branch off and create something new that would get veterans outdoors sharing life with one another.

“It’s that sense of belonging, believing in something bigger than themselves, that causes us to stray,” Johnson said. “I think that’s why you see such a high suicide rate (for veterans).”

He hopes that through Switching Camo, he can contribute to curbing the suicide epidemic in the veteran community. Johnson sees his peers selling themselves short because out of the military, they no longer have to live up to the standard of the Army.

“The type of people who have done what they did, they don’t want handouts,” Johnson said, which is one of the reasons his company is not a nonprofit. “We just set the blocks in place to allow them to be successful.”

Although Johnson has yet to release a single episode of Switching Camo, he has already seen it make a difference. That’s why Wade left Florida and moved to Iowa a couple years ago after going on a hunting trip with Johnson. Having heard about Switching Camo from an army chaplain, Wade was inspired to reach out to Johnson and check it out for himself.

They went out west on a hunting trip and shot some footage for the show together. “After that, he’s been my brother ever since,” Wade said.

Although veterans have come and gone throughout the process of getting the show up and running, Wade has stuck around, even decking out his truck in Switching Camo logos.

“Just because I’m out of the military doesn’t mean my service has ended,” Wade said. “People see my truck, they ask about Switching Camo, it’s telling that story. The sky’s the limit.”

Because of Switching Camo, Wade decided to go back to school for film production and editing even though he said he hates computers with a passion. “If it can help save Joe (Johnson) or help somebody else, I have no problem doing it,” he said.

Johnson and Wade both said they never see this becoming a full-time job — and they don’t want it to, saying it would change the purpose.

“It’s pure right now,” Johnson said. “That’s what we want to retain, our flexibility to do what we want without the fear of losing money. We can’t get caught up in the things other people are caught up in.”

“If I never made a penny, I’d be happy,” Wade said.

Johnson, who works as the Financial Director at Danville Community School, said that most of his peers probably don’t even know he moonlights as a videographer, even though he spends around 10 hours a week working on it.

“I’m just fine if my name and picture is never associated,” Johnson said.

Switching Camo is told in a documentary style, without interviews and without a script. Through his experience, Johnson believes that more is understood about an individual’s actions, not through their words.

“Words are cheap,” he said. “It doesn’t portray the passion and the fight these men have had to go through.”

From filming hunting to fly fishing to intense conversations around the campfire, Johnson captures the heart of these individuals who are “educated, regular people” and not “mindless soldiers.”

“I think that’s what this country has yet to see is this generation of war fighters is going to go on and be a larger part of society,” Johnson said. “The country we’ve come back to is not the country we remembered we were fighting for,” he added.

Although the show revolves around outdoor activities, Johnson doesn’t want that to be the focus. Instead, he hopes to portray “the realness of life,” preserving the stories of these veterans for years to come.

“We had a National Guard guy who was on staff for a while, and not too long after he left, he committed suicide,” Johnson said. “Those are the things that stick in my mind. You can ‘What If’ all day, but it’s what you do today that makes a difference.”

Not only has Switching Camo touched the lives of veterans — friends and strangers alike — but it has brought his family closer together.

Ashley Johnson, Joseph Johnson’s wife, is also a veteran. Although she said she isn’t really a hunter, it’s fun that Johnson gets to include the family in the production of the show, occasionally taking his sons hunting to help with the camera work.

Johnson said he thinks the project hits a personal note for Ashley, whose brother, also a veteran, committed suicide. This is the story for a lot of people in Johnson’s life.

“I just lost another friend to suicide,” Johnson said. “That makes twice as many soldiers (in our unit) lost to suicide than in actual combat. I think it’s because a lot of those guys lose their purpose.”

“We need to take it upon ourselves to police our own ranks in curbing this suicide epidemic,” he continued. “How we do that, I’m not sure yet,” Johnson said, but he definitely believes Switching Camo is a start.

Johnson said the goal is to one day air the show on TV, but it isn’t their main goal. The main goal is to impact people and show veterans that they can do greater things like they did when they were active in the military.

“TV wouldn’t be bad, it’s just so darn expensive,” Johnson said.

The project has been what Johnson calls a money pit. It’s completely funded by him, although they do have sponsors who help them get veterans outfitted in hunting gear.

Before Johnson is ready to show an episode of Switching Camo to anyone, he wants to have eight to 12 episodes prepared to create an entire season. Each episode is about 45 minutes.

“Part of the holdup is that if we’re going to do something, we’re going to do it right.” Johnson said. “The day the first episode airs, the day we send it out to people to critique will be tough, but I know I can’t hold onto it forever.”

Johnson said he is his own worst enemy when it comes to getting a final product. On trips, he often sets the camera aside to have conversations with the other veterans and make sure everyone is having the experience they signed up for.

“It’s been a long road,” Johnson said. “I’m nobody special. I just take time to put this thing together. It’s not about me, it never has been. There’s just so much more to life than any one person.”

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