VILLANOW, Ga. -- Two or three times a week, passersby pull over to see what's happening alongside the two-laned Highway 136.
Just off the highway stands the beginnings of an Old Western-looking town called Fort Villanow, a project of local veterans who wanted to create a haven for fellow combat vets. Volunteers are completely funding and building the small town.
So far, there's a wood-planked walkway with an old-timey facade of storefronts. The one-and-a-half-acre site includes a blacksmith shop, a woodworking shop, a central fire pit and a raised wooden water tower.
For more information or to get involved with Fort Villanow, call 706-397-8909 or visit the site at 12650 E. Highway 136.
Organizers hope the wood and blacksmith shops might be able to teach veterans new skills or just serve as a kind of therapeutic hobby.
They are working on constructing a saloon to act as a central meeting place for the Western-themed project, and hope to eventually have horses on-site to both complete the theme and play a role in equine therapy.
Alese Maples, a volunteer with the project, says the idea behind it is that newly separated members of the military or older veterans find comfort in the company of other veterans. That can help those struggling with readjustment issues or even severe issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, she says.
Each day, about 22 veterans kill themselves, according to suicide data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. And data released last year showed that male veterans under age 30 saw a 44 percent increase in the rate of suicides -- numbers that could be particularly alarming given the ongoing massive drawdown of forces following the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"A lot of veterans won't go and get help because there's so much stigma attached to it," Maples said. "Here [in Fort Villanow], they don't have to say, 'I have this problem.' They can just be around other people who have had similar experiences."
Joe Raburn says he and a friend dreamed up the idea of a special place for veterans over a cup of coffee.
They had known other veterans who struggled after returning from combat and wanted to create a place where they would feel comfortable and safe. Because serving in the military and going to war is a uniquely challenging experience.
"When you're downrange, your world stops," Raburn said. "But the world you left behind just keeps turning."
Though it's designed to be for vets, the nonprofit Fort Villanow will be open free to the public seven days a week upon its planned opening this summer. There will be activities for kids, and organizers expect families may make it a weekend stop.
"All veterans, veterans' family members are welcome and the public that supports veterans," said Raburn.
His sister-in-law, Michelle Raburn, has watched the site transform from a junk yard into something unique -- a place where veterans come together and again work for a common cause.
"They develop bonds and they have that brotherhood," she said.
Once it's completed, she believes it will be an asset for the tiny community of Villanow and the surrounding area.
"I think it will be a good, wholesome place where people feel welcome and comfortable, a place they can de-stress," she said. "And when you relax, that's therapeutic."
Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at email@example.com or 423-757-6249.