ORANGE PARK – Determined to make it through a night that had been fueled by alcohol and depression, 26-year-old Korey Shaffer of Middleburg set out to make a plaque to honor a friend he served with in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Shaffer describes the act of making that plaque and many others since that night in 2016 as a coping mechanism, a therapeutic way to deal with the dark thoughts he tried to shake. The next day, he woke up sober yet unable to look at the plaque. He said it hurt too much and as a result, gave it to his deceased friend’s mom.
“She loved it and the sentiment of it,” Shaffer said. “She shared it on Facebook and then other people wanted a plaque, so I made it for them. It was always free, and it was a great therapy for me.”
The demand for plaques continued to grow but Shaffer’s wallet continued to grow empty. He wanted to keep making them, but he needed a source of funding to do so. That’s when the Til Valhalla Project was born.
Unaware that it would one day become his business’ name, Shaffer adorned each plaque he made with the words, “Til Valhalla, Brother.” In Norse mythology, Valhalla is the realm where Valkyries take those who have fallen in combat. The fallen are taken to the Hall of Slain, where they feast for eternity, alongside the Norse god, Odin.
“It means we’ll see you again,” Shaffer said.
When Shaffer decided he would turn his therapy into a business, he toyed with the name the Til Valhalla Project but it wasn’t until his friends and family said that they loved the name that it really stuck for him. That was Feb. 27, 2017. Today, the Til Valhalla Project is a thriving business, with thousands of customers nationwide and millions of veterans and citizens alike who have heard of the company.
Still though, despite Shaffer’s success, he still remembers the core of it all: memorializing those who die forever. Simply put, the money that the Til Valhalla Project makes is used to fund the plaques that the family of deceased service members receive across the country. Til Valhalla Project has a network of members across the U.S. so that if a plaque is being made for someone in an outside area, there’s someone that can hand-deliver it to the family.
“Every single one of our plaques are hand-delivered and they always will be,” Shaffer said.
Beyond the plaque, each fallen soldier is placed on the Til Valhalla Project website’s Wall of Heroes. Shaffer said this Wall of Heroes serves as a memorial for those who have died in the military, or after. A visit to the Wall of Heroes will show nearly 50 soldiers whose lives have been placed into history.
“We have graveyards, but not everyone can get to those,” Shaffer said. “The Wall of Heroes is there at all times, available at any time and serves as a way to remember those we’ve lost.”
This Wall of Heroes doesn’t have any outside links for people to click, products for anyone to buy or anything else — it’s a simple and clean page showing the pictures of the deceased. Shaffer said the Til Valhalla Project pays to have the Wall of Heroes sent throughout the web as an ad of sorts to bring viewers from around the country to it.
“The Wall of Heroes has one objective: to get the legacies out there,” Shaffer said. “It’s an evergreen digital graveyard and tells families who have lost loved ones that they’re not alone in remembering their hero. We will all remember them and those after us will too because this [Wall of Heroes] will be there forever.”
Shaffer’s business specializes in commemorative products such as shirts and hats. One of the more specialized products, though, are bracelets.
These bracelets, which come in metal or leather, are made in the Til Valhalla Project manufacturing facility, a storage unit on Blanding Boulevard. Lined against the back wall are two massive laser machines that engrave hundreds of bracelets each month. Some of the bracelets serve as specific memorial pieces, with a fallen soldier’s name among other adornments. Some, however, are more general, and serve as grim reminders that an estimated 22 veterans take their life each day. For that, there are bracelets and dog tags adorned with the words, “22 A Day.”
“Thousands wear that band and it’s to spread awareness,” Shaffer said. “It’s also a reminder. If someone is feeling like suicide is the answer, hopefully that band will remind them that it doesn’t have to end like that.”
Shaffer admitted that he still struggles every now and then. He said that feeling never goes away but things like the Til Valhalla Project, or anything that can keep a veteran’s mind busy, elevate his life and keep him atop the mountain, rather than stuck in the valley.
Because of his business’ recent success – which he said wouldn’t be possible without the help of his wife Tiffany – Shaffer is already looking at getting a second storage unit and hiring more employees. Currently, Shaffer’s business employs six people and all of them are disabled veterans. For as long as the Til Valhalla Project is around, he intends to only hire disabled veterans.
“How else can we give them value without actually giving them value,” Shaffer said. “I was in their shoes too and this [Til Valhalla Project] literally saved my life. I want this to do the same for them.”
Shaffer is open to teaching employees how a business works and how to branch out on their own. He wants to see fellow veterans get back up on their feet. At the end of the day, that’s always been Shaffer’s goal – help other veterans.
“I used to think, ‘If I live to be 80, what are the other 60 going to be?’ and I realized I wanted to merge entrepreneurship with giving back,” Shaffer said. “So that’s what I’m doing; that’s what this is.”