By Helen Phillips
VICKSBURG – “Give me five or six guys like me around a campfire and that’s all the therapy I need.” That comment, made by wounded veteran Gregory Charles Williams to Dan Fordice was just the beginning of an organization dedicated to helping combat-wounded veterans. Fordice, an avid outdoorsman and hunter himself, saw the need to pull together wounded veterans, get them active, and get them talking. He founded the Warrior Bonfire Program in an effort to help veterans break the barriers of injuries sustained in combat and remind them that they do have a purpose. The experience can also lead them to seek help they may need in other aspects of their lives.
Fordice, a member of Vicksburg St. Paul Parish, recognized this as a call from God that would allow him and many others to perform works of mercy. He felt that if he could save souls from the loss of hope and despair, perhaps he could prevent suicide. “Too many of our men are taking their own lives and we must, we have to stop it!” said Fordice.
The Warrior Bonfire Program began with hunting, skiing and fishing trips but has grown to provide opportunities of all varieties including sporting events, NASCAR driving, whitewater rafting, zip lining and more. The organization makes accommodations for wounded vets, helping those in wheelchairs or prosthetic devices participate with creative problem solving. On one hunt, a wheelchair was taken in a bulldozer out to the field.
“We will take them anywhere to do anything that gives them excitement, which opens the door for the conversations that heal,” stated Fordice. Talk therapy is becoming more and more understood and needed to help those with injuries, particularly for those veterans with invisible scars from traumatic brain injuries or post traumatic stress disorder. The Warrior Bonfire Program is designed to help in the healing process, physically, mentally and spiritually. Not getting help with these scars can lead to despair and hopelessness. “You are saving lives at the Bonfire” stated Purple Heart Veteran and member Mike Chesne.
Every meal and every bonfire is opened with a prayer inviting God into our circle to do His will and it is at these times the most powerful breakthroughs occur. I am Helen Phillips, the director of veteran services for the organization, and raised in St. Paul Parish. Time after time, we witness small miracles on these trips, where a veteran is helping another or as a group they rush to aid another. It is truly God’s work and a joy to see them find hope and direction.
The bonfire component of the organization is a sacred circle of six Purple Heart recipients gathered around a bonfire on the final night of the trip. At the bonfire, an American flag is properly retired using instructions set by Congress and done so in honor of fallen servicemen or women that served with the individuals present. Each soldier is able to retire a part of the flag, the red stripes representing blood, the blue field representing the sky, etc. They can dedicate the parts of the flag to specific fallen comrades.
When a soldier is injured, he or she is quickly evacuated for treatment. During that time some of their military brothers may lose their lives. This can mean that survivors never had the opportunity to say goodbye, find closure, honor their friend or grieve. This is the purpose of the bonfire and it has proven to be very healing. Ashes from every bonfire are collected and carried to the next bonfire, creating a new bond between the soldiers at the events. LTC Dave Grossman uses a phrase which captures completely what we do at the bonfire, “Pain shared is pain divided, joy shared is joy multiplied.”
The Warrior Bonfire Program gathers Purple Hearts from around the country at various events. Immediately upon introductions these veterans appear to be lifelong friends, all due the knowledge that everyone present as suffered similar traumas. They feel comfortable and safe with each other. In this environment, the core value taught in the military, “no man left behind” comes full circle. They begin to work with each other, push each other, teach each other and pick up each other. They are reminded of when they give of themselves to help others and lead others, that they do in fact still have a purpose in life. Knowing their brothers depend on them gives them life and direction.
Participants often go home to their families and share their combat experiences. Until now, many have wanted to protect their families from the horrific situations in which they were involved, but they learn at the bonfire that families want and need to understand. Purple Heart veteran Jeremy Johnson stated after a bonfire weekend, “You have changed my life, my wife’s life, and my children’s lives forever.”
The Warrior Bonfire Program works among a network of other vetted organizations that support veterans across the country. Once a veteran has become receptive to the idea of healing and therapy, the program will refer those that attend our trips to other organizations that specialize in specific ways to help whether it is recreational therapy, health and wellness programs, financial programs or family therapies.
The Warrior Bonfire Program is a 501c3 organization that provides four or five day excursions for Purple Heart Veterans to rebuild the brotherhood that many of our veterans injured in combat have lost.To learn more, please visit the website at www.warriorbonfireprogram.org.
(Helen Phillips is the director of veteran services and special projects for the Warrior Bonfire Program)
By Helen Phillips