It was late fall 2021 and Courtney Fussell had just purchased a home and 120 acres in Stroud, Oklahoma. The property was more than 1,200 miles from her current home in Maryland and she had no ties to the Sooner State. It may sound impulsive and ill-conceived to make such a purchase after only seeing the property once, but this 28-year-old has been living on faith and one woman’s dream the last couple years.
On June 30, 2020, Fussell and her family were in a horrific three-car accident that took the lives of Fussell’s mother, Debra Montouri, and two others.
Montouri served 23 years in the Army National Guard, most of the time as a human intelligence officer. When she retired, she was looking for a new direction for her life. She became passionate about the issue of veteran suicide and helping them transition to civilian life.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, in 2019 6,261 United States veterans committed suicide. In 2020, the overall unemployment rate for veterans was 6.5%. The US Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates that 40,056 veterans are homeless on any given night. Only 7% of the population are veterans, but nearly 13% of homeless adults are veterans.
Involved in agriculture her entire life, Montouri decided to take part in the Arcadia Veteran Farming Program in Alexandria, Virginia. The year-long program includes classroom and hands-on teaching to train veterans for careers in agriculture.
“She wanted to start her own similar program, but also participants offer a chance to develop money-making businesses with what they learned in her program,” Fussell said. “Her idea was to put up a huge greenhouse and rent out sections of it to veterans who lived in housing that did not allow them to grow gardens or did not have the finances to buy into co-ops. She hoped there would also be space for small livestock species like chickens and goats as well.”
At the time of her death Montouri had built the greenhouse at her family’s farm in Maryland, he was applying for grants and was in the process of cleaning out an old barn to be used for a farmer’s market for the veterans.
Although she survived the crash, Fussell was flown to a trauma center with major injuries.
“I had a fracture of the C6 and C7 vertebrae, the C7 also had a subluxation,” she explained. “I also broke my ulna, collar bone, fractured my skull and dislocated my ankle so badly that it was originally thought to be a tibia-fibula fracture.”
Additionally, she shattered her femur bone to the point where it was only 2 inches away from needing a total hip replacement. She was in the hospital for weeks and has required multiple surgeries and rehab. In fact, Fussell has had to teach herself to walk again twice. However, almost immediately after the accident she made up her mind to pick up where her mother left off on the program’s and keep her mother’s dream alive.
“I didn’t necessarily know how to connect myself with my mom after the accident,” Fussell explained. “My biological parents have been divorced almost my entire life, so my mom raised me. She was my best friend and all of a sudden, I wake up in the hospital and they’re telling me that she doesn’t exist anymore. It was a really hard transition and I didn’t know how to bridge my life from before the accident to after.”
Once she was on the road to recovery, Fussell started making plans for a modified version of her mother’s project. She decided to call the operation Lazy C Cattle Co. Lacking her mother’s green thumb, she wanted to focus on livestock rather than horticulture, and the location had to have affordable land prices and a warmer climate than Maryland.
“Between the financial constraints and the metal in my body from the surgeries after the accident, the cold hurts and I needed to be somewhere warmer with more temperate weather,” Fussell said. “Oklahoma fit the bill on everything.”
Like her mother, Fussell also shares a desire to help veterans’ transition to civilian life.
“This program will offer job opportunities to veterans who held a job in the military that doesn’t correlate with a career in the civilian sector,” Fussell stated on Lazy C’s website. “Our program is unique in that we hope for better the lives of service members. Not only are we offering a transitional ease and a new career to the military members, but we are striving to offer housing and a living stipend to the veterans going through our program so that way they are able to focus on their education with less financial stress .”
Around the time she was purchasing the property in Stroud, Fussell met a veteran named Corbin Morgan on a dating website and they became a team. Morgan, who grew up in Coweta, Oklahoma, had just gotten out of the Navy.
“It was definitely difficult coming out of the military because I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Morgan said. “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side and it was daunting to not have ‘three hots and a cot’ and a guaranteed paid check on the first and 15th. Life doesn’t stop when you’re in the military, and when I got out I realized all my friends have got families and I couldn’t hang out with them like I used to. I caught myself alone a lot and I wish I had a program like this to go into.”
The 120-acre property in Stroud is 60% wooded and 40% grass. Fussell said she has purchased two Jersey cows and nine beef cows for the program. She has purchased three horses that will arrive in May. Lazy C has applied for more than seven grants to get the project off the ground. Fussell recently released Lazy C merchandise on the website as a fundraising endeavor.
Additionally, she met with a builder to draw up plans for veteran housing and will be putting up a livestock barn in time. Fussell said she hopes to have the dorm-style bunkhouse built by fall and plans to have the inaugural class of veterans in spring of 2023. The housing will have separate sleeping areas for the men and women, and a shared common room with a kitchen.
Fussell said the social media app TikTok has been integral for spreading the word about Lazy C Cattle Co. and her email has been flooded with messages with people who want to be a part of it or join the first class. Currently Fussell said she is working on paperwork to add Lazy C to the US Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which provides service members with training for a field of work before they are discharged.
“For active duty, they are only entitled to 180 days with the SkillBridge program,” Fussell said. “I would like at least 9 months in our program because that would take them from the breeding to calving season so they can learn all about it.”
She has put in the hours to develop a program to heal veterans, but it has been therapeutic for Fussell at the same time.
“I’m not 100% and I still have my bad days, but this project has been healing for me,” she said. “I don’t think I will ever be the same person I was before the accident, but my mental health has gotten significantly better. You don’t realize how incredibly soothing agriculture is and if I feel that way just walking out to my chickens, I can imagine the help and healing we can offer veterans.”
Fussell said she knows her mother would be upset that she moved so far away from her family to start Lazy C Cattle Co., but she knows Montouri would be incredibly impressed by her progress at the same time.