Something to Believe in

Alumnus Josh McCain Quits High-Powered Job to Start Nonprofit for Active-Duty Special Operations Forces

In March of 2015, Josh McCain (‘09) was looking for something more.

It was a curious time to be searching. He and his wife had moved to New York City in 2012 and found remarkable success. He was the director of business development for a large health care company, and in almost three years on the job, he had increased their revenue by leaps and bounds. He had received major awards and had been placed on the city’s who’s who lists, including King of Kings County in Brooklyn and 40 Under 40. He had essentially conquered one of the toughest cities in the world.

Still, he couldn’t shake his restlessness.

“That offer, that job, single-handedly changed my life,” he said. “And after I got my bonus and my paychecks and all that stuff, I just realized my heart wasn’t there, and I was looking for something else.”

It was a visit with his brother-in-law that began to stir McCain’s heart. A soldier in the Special Operations Forces (SOF), his brother-in-law had just returned from his 14th deployment at the time, and the effects were becoming obvious. Each deployment seemed to be wearing him down more, and McCain couldn’t stand watching him suffer. He decided to do something about it.

McCain grew up in Bozeman, Montana, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, and remembered the restorative power it had on his life. He wondered what resources were available for active-duty soldiers like his brother-in-law to decompress and recharge during their two-week block leave before and after deployment. He interviewed more than 60 SOF personnel, and found their resources were minimal at best.

In June of 2015, McCain filed the paperwork for Big Sky Bravery, a nonprofit organization dedicated to giving active-duty SOF soldiers personalized outdoor recreation experiences in the wide-open spaces of Montana. In October of 2015, he and his wife quit their jobs, moved from New York to Bozeman, and hit the ground running.

“For us to get those first three soldiers out, it took everything we had,” he said. “And I was more persistent trying to get that approved than I was in selling anything in my entire career. I sat outside of a department store for about six months, any day that I was able to do it, trying to sell raffle tickets or jingling a bell like I was working for the Salvation Army. I ended up getting the first program funded doing that.”

At the time of this interview, McCain had just completed his 17th weeklong program, which had hosted a total of 76 SOF soldiers in three years of operation. These soldiers are selected by the Department of Defense, and engage in a wide range of activities, including skiing, ATV riding, hiking and climbing, all with equipment and gear from Big Sky Bravery sponsors. The activities vary in intensity and difficulty based on the soldiers’ age and what kind of experience they’re looking for.

For the soldiers, taking a week from their block leave, and time with their families, seemed to be having a real impact. But McCain didn’t realize the true impact of Big Sky Bravery until he heard from one of the soldier’s wives. He wasn’t sure how the conversation would go, and worried he was going to get an earful about keeping her husband away from home.

“She said, ‘I’m going to be very short and to the point when I say this,’” he recalled. “‘I would rather have my husband here 100 percent mentally for one week than zero percent for two weeks. And whatever you did when he was out there changed his outlook and changed his life. He was able to breathe when he got home. That last week he was with us was one of the best weeks of our marriage, and I’ll never be able to thank you enough.’”

Since starting Big Sky Bravery, McCain and his wife have burned through all their savings. He’s held down three jobs while trying to keep the organization afloat and keep a roof over his family’s heads. While leading these programs, he’s broken his back, dislocated his shoulder twice, fractured his tibia, torn his MCL, sprained his ACL and suffered a concussion. He knows there’s no guarantees of success, but the work has all been worth it.

“The only thing for us that is guaranteed is we know that when somebody gets off that airplane, there’s a reason why they’re here,” he said. “And it’s up to us to figure it out as fast as possible how we’re going to help them when they get off the plane, because we know everyone has a story, and they were all selected for a reason.”

McCain, who was named a Georgia Southern 40 Under 40 honoree in 2016, still has big plans for Big Sky Bravery. This year, he’ll hire another program leader, a former SOF soldier who can free up McCain for a little decompression of his own. He also hopes to build a lodge in Big Sky, Montana, where program alumni can come and bring their families to share their experience with them. It’s a big dream, McCain admits, but when you believe in something, you’ll do anything to see it happen.

“Yeah, I think I’m going to have to ding that bell a few more times outside the department store,” he said.

— Doy Cave