From the perspective of Bonfire 78 Retreat attendee, Purple Heart Frank Herbert.
When offered the trip to St George, South Dakota, I wondered what exactly a cattle ranch could offer me. Growing up in Texas, I wasn’t new to horses and cattle, so this wasn’t something new or novel for me. This was my first trip of any sort for veterans, much less wounded ones, and my mind conjured up a myriad of events that might take place. Thankfully none of those happened. What did occur was inspiring to say the least.
As many of you know, the Warrior Bonfire Program takes 6 or 7 wounded veterans, links them up with a trip, and lets the experience do the healing. Whether it’s fishing, winter adaptive sports or otherwise, the event speaks for itself. No such clarity for this trip, especially for me being on my first veterans outing of any kind.
The group arrived, with one coming in late…Google Maps directions don’t work too well in rural South Dakota. Several of us, myself included, were career servicemen and the rest had the desire to, but had their careers cut short by injuries. We also had one Vietnam veteran, which was educational for us. Utilizing the ranch guest house we settled in. This being the first time Warrior Bonfires had used the Majestic for a trip, there was going to be some ‘learn as we go.”
For me, I spent the better part of post 9/11 in senior leadership roles in the tank community enduring back to back deployments, setting aside my personal life (and family) for the more pressing need to make sure my Marines came home alive-an unrealistic expectation-and threw myself into this work. After a series of deployments and the combat that goes with tanks, sucking up the pain didn’t work anymore and I was denied reenlistment due to injuries. Staying busy meant not dwelling on things so I likewise threw myself into teaching JROTC for 8 years, working long hours until once again I had to stop to take care of my health. These experiences, I found, were not uncommon. Work has purpose, and once that stops, one is faced with the reality of examining oneself. Looking back on lost Marines, broken relationships, bad health and a myriad of other things, I’ve never thought much about the “What ifs” but more about “Was it worth it?”
That’s where the Majestic comes in. The Majestic Ranch sits in the rolling grasslands of far southeastern South Dakota, near the Missouri River and the Lewis and Clark trail. People out here on the ranches live according to the seasons, whether torrential spring rains or blizzards. All while raising cattle supporting the beef industry of America. But what does the Majestic have that made this trip so special? After all, there are Dude Ranches everywhere that cater to people who want a taste of cowboy life, and this is a working ranch.
The Majestic is a working ranch, running thousands of head of cattle. The Majestic Ranch is a business. Tony and Meghan Weborg are like many small business owners. From the time the get up to the time they go to bed (and probably while they sleep), the business end of the ranch is on their minds. We were collectively impressed with this end. How much fuel? How much meds to order? What’s the market forecast? Don’t forget about the weather. Business means reducing overhead so they do most of the work. With thousands of head of cattle, they only have two full time employees. The rest they do themselves.
Here, in what is normal for Tony and Meghan, their family, friends, and neighbors, we saw something special. Time for shots and branding of calves? Lets go to work. Friends and family showed up. The part we loved was the kids. The Weborg’s kids were all business. It was dirty, stinky work. Roping, throwing calves. Tagging, cutting, shots. They and their friends all but took over, with the “adults” there mostly for guidance. These kiddos knew how to work! All of us veterans had plenty of time in service, and none of us tolerated slackers and whiners, and only gave out “Atta boys” only grudgingly. We were to a person amazed at what we saw in these young adults. There was no griping-they made their own fun, accepting the work as something to be done. Polite, respectful. Trusted with the ranch truck. Independent. Seeing what needs to be done and doing it. Trustworthy. Boots off at the door. Yessir, nossir. Smiles all the time. These are all words I come up with as I don’t have the room to describe everything. Families together. Talk of how bad the spring rains were and all the news focused on the South.
What we saw was America. Hard working families. Great kids. People working together for the common good. All those clichés we hear are taking place in front of our eyes. Neighbors helping each other. All of us had been in the military for many years. Several of us for decades. The military life is a protective, insulated bubble. We protect America. We go in harms way. But we miss out in participating in what America truly is. On this trip, we got to see a small part of what America is.
While all of our stories are different, and we all took something different away, I think I can speak for all on one common thread. It WAS worth it.
Thank you to the Weborg family for hosting the Warrior Bonfire Program along with Majestic Ranch and Zivaro as retreat sponsors! Click here to see more photos!
At every Bonfire retreat the same thing occurs in the beginning, the six attending veterans are introduced as they arrive, they begin to ask the typical questions, what branch, where did you serve, where were you deployed, what was your MOS and did you know so and so? All these questions of course build commonality and understanding of each other’s experience level, on top of the knowledge that everyone there has been verified as a veteran that saw combat and was injured at the hand of the enemy, which ultimately plants the seeds of trust. “The ability to meet others that know what you have gone through, without even saying anything, is priceless,” commented Air Force Purple Heart, Shelly C.
However, at this particular event, the connectivity of this group was way beyond any we have seen before. This bond was indescribable. The difference, they came together and shared their pain, like always through the guidance of our retreat staff, but took it a step further and grew the support network well beyond the norm, as this group didn’t hold back any vulnerabilities. “We came together to share our stories of how we came to be and to show each other we were not alone and that as brothers and sisters of the Armed Forces we will always be here for each other,” stated Purple Heart Marcus R. The members of this group were from all walks of life, very different individuals with three common threads, the love of their service, the love of the military and their wounds from combat. Their specific struggles were met with love, understanding, and compassion.
The compassion was genuine and clean, not filled with pity, questions or judgment.
“As a parent, you are genuinely happy to see your children succeed on their own and fly from the nest, this is the way I felt about this group of veterans on this particular event. I was filled with joy to see the true bonds of friendship and support they found in each other and with such little help from the staff other than our group therapy introductions of subjects and sharing,” Helen Phillips Vice Present and Retreat Assistant. By the end of the weekend, at the Bonfire this group of combat warriors were literally connected arm and arm in a chain of support.
This retreat’s agenda, although challenged by very uncharacteristic snow on the second day of summer, offered additional down time for one of one conversations which played a huge role in this unique connectivity. Between golf at Fort Carson, fishing at Granby Lake up in the Rockies and a healing dip in the hot sulfur springs, this group created a true support network. We thank Granby Ranch for their hospitality and special treatment at The Granby Ranch Grill, the Rotary Club of Highlands Ranch for the golf sponsorship, golf lessons and welcome bags, Lane Meeks and Ken Jensen for the hosting fishing on Granby Lake and all our supporters for playing important roles in all we do. (Click here to see all our photos from this event)
With a set of clean unused scissors and a group a volunteers of the Warrior Bonfire Program, dozens of American Flags were prepared and stored for upcoming Bonfire American Flag Retirement Ceremonies. Every Bonfire retreat that is held as part of the Warrior Bonfire Program, host a flag retirement ceremony in honor of our Purple Hearts fallen brothers and sisters. Here, each attending Veteran receives a red, white and blue strip to retire into the flames as the words set forth by Congress are read aloud.
Members of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 112 of Jackson, MS spent hours dismembering old glory, in the most respectful of ways, with clean scissors, never letting it touch the ground and removing the union first. After having read aloud the ceremony shown below, they got to work. "This looks easier than it is, not only is it tedious but it's emotional as well" stated one of Warrior Bonfire's top volunteers, Bobbie Chapin. "My husband served in Vietnam, so my heart is close to the military, and to think of all those that serve and sacrifice while we were preparing these flags got me choked up!"
As the group worked and the thoughts wondered to all those service members who fought under our glorious flag, that these ladies know personally, a realization came to light that stopped their hearts in just a moment of wow! "It's D Day!" exclaimed on of the ladies. All fell silent and the magnitude of the price of freedom became incredibly real!
The process in which the Warrior Bonfire retires the American Flag, serves as a therapeutic tool to help those we serve to find peace and sometimes closure. Most of these men and women never had the opportunity to attend a formal memorial service to face the loss and lay their friend to rest. "At the bonfire it was good to get the bad memories out, once it was over I felt at peace, something I haven't felt in a very long time," explains Purple Heart Stephen Blair.
A dilemma we sadly face too often at our Bonfires explained by Purple Heart Chet Brown, "Losing 7 guys on one day, I was worried about only having 3 pieces of Flag. Inside they all know how I felt. It was the first time I said their names "out loud" in 16 years." Although each participant receives only three stripes to retire, they are welcome to take as much time as they need to name their friends, tell their stories, shed the tears and hug it out with others. These stripes are more than just pieces of flags, they are pieces of our nations soul.
We thank Bobbie Chapin and the ladies of the American Legion Auxiliary Unit 112 of Jackson, MS for their time and respect. Their service in this manner is incredibly important to the therapeutic value that our Purple Heart Veterans receive, on our retreats.
Learn more about the Warrior Bonfire Program by using this link, warriorbonfireprogram.org
Bridging the gap between the military and civilian worlds.
Every time we bring together civilian volunteers and our Purple Heart Veterans, the gap between the two groups is lessened tremendously, however, this gap is often not as huge as many Veterans may think. The gap is a perceived notion that civilians, those that have never served in the Armed Forces, don’t have a clue or ability to understand the mind of a Veteran, much less a Combat Veteran. It is incredibly difficult for the combat wounded Veteran to see, that civilians do care about their well-being and that the sacrifices made really did matter.
Memorial Day weekend on Lake Sam Rayburn at our 77th Bonfire retreat, a handful of professional fishing guides were paired up with a handful of combat wounded veterans. A powerful interaction for both groups to learn about the other. Throughout the weekend a common mantra emerged, “Stand For Something”. This thought is always in the mind of the Veterans but for these civilians it created a sense of awareness and understanding they wouldn’t have had otherwise. For the Veterans, Memorial Day weekend brings a heavy heart, “we all know the losses it takes to give us the freedoms we have, the freedoms that are paid in blood. These days are much easier to bear when we come across people who live good honest lives.” Aaron Allmon, retired combat photographer
Giving of your time as a civilian to volunteer or donate your resources to Veterans who have to manage daily, the lasting effects of war, be it cognitive dysfunction, mental distress, or major physical permanent injuries, means more than you can imagine. When our Veterans come home and see the lack of respect for our freedoms that allow people to be incredibly selfish, it’s hard for them understand what they were fighting for to begin with. After a weekend of connectivity with volunteers who truly gave of their time and resources, left every one of our visiting Veterans the feeling that the sacrifices and blood shed was worth it. “These are good people, to leave their families on a three day weekend to support us, it helps us to know it was all worth it.” Purple Heart Graham Golden
We worried that hosting one our events on Memorial Day weekend would be a bit too rough, we were proven wrong as it opened a new conversation that helps close the gap. For Justin Peltier, one of our volunteers for this events said, “to listen to stories that they sat next to their friends that died in combat only for they themselves to make it out alive…, those things you can’t reset or redo, you can’t begin to understand the feeling they have when talking about their fallen comrades.” To Justin and all those that volunteer their time, you don’t have to fully understand to get it. The act of listening, truly hearing them, and not judging them or questioning their actions, means the world to them. Knowing that you care, is life altering and in some cases lifesaving.
Click here to see more photos from this retreat!
Thank you to our partners & fishing guides for help making this Bonfire Retreat possible!
Peace at Sea
Up with the sun on the Atlantic coast for a day out on the water offshore fishing. Nothing could be better for six combat wounded veterans to breathe and find a pinch of peace . Captain Rick Sabarese and his son Jason on Brian’s Song, a 50 foot Lydia, provided an opportunity of a simulated mission to conquer the sea in quest of the big one. Unlike so many of the past missions for these combat warriors, this mission came with the comforting knowledge that they would not lose a brother today and they would return home safely, knowing our nations freedoms are still intact as other warriors are still on the front lines continuing the fight.
Sometimes due to changes beyond our control the mission and target must change, adjustments are needed, and a new plan implemented. For our combat wounded men and women this is the case. Now, the daily mission is to stay alive, keep their brothers/sisters alive, find a new purpose, and to be content in a space that is way too slow. The target is now within their own minds, it is aggressive and deadly.
As the day progressed, the mission of catching the big one had to change. The attitudes adjusted and a new plan implemented. Accepting that today the big fish wasn’t biting but the ones that did were beautiful! The jokes and laughter started and the celebration of the catches made became trophies of the day! The new mission, find the joy that surrounded them. Taking comfort in the fact that those now around them had been where they had been in war, they understood the pain, suffering and loss. In this time on the water they learned they were not alone and they now knew more guys like themselves that they could lean on.
Competition without Keeping Score
Day two put the group out at Quail Creek Plantation for a round of competition shooting sporting clays. Thanks to the great hospitality, we had nothing to worry about except those little orange clays and having fun. For most, not all, of our Veterans, shooting guns is where their comfort zone lies. For a long time their firearm was a part of them like an arm. It was always with them and they were trained to use it wisely. For a combat veteran, a technique of shooting was mastered through target practice all the time, after retiring, a lot of joy comes when they shoot again and know they still have what it takes. A small personal victory, but a victory none the less.
There is so much more to these retreats than just giving the Veterans special treatment and fun exciting things to do. These events provide the veteran with a different perspective and examples of options and tools to combat the devastating thoughts of hopelessness and suicide. These events also restore their faith in the civilian community as they see that people do care about them. The Warrior Bonfire Program relies heavily on our volunteers and donors, on the ground, to make these retreats happen and we make sure our members know who has done what. For the veteran, this level of "Thank you for your service," truly means a lot and restores faith that their sacrifices were worth it.
We thank our volunteers, Jim Bevacqua, Bob Alfeiri and all the local businesses in or around Stuart, Florida, along with individuals listed below that made this event possible. See more photos here!
Photos by Aaron Allmon
Warrior Bonfire Volunteer - John Heggins
Five years in a row Vicksburg, Mississippi's, Warren County Constable John Heggins has supported and organized one of our largest annual fundraisers, the Warrior Bonfire Program Annual Charity Clay Shoot in Mississippi. Every year he has worked tirelessly to find sponsors, corporate teams, volunteers and in kind donations, all with the goal of bringing in as many dollars as possible to serve our Purple Heart Veterans.
Years ago John saw an opportunity to bring together a multitude of his friends that were separated among competing sporting clay shoot clubs, these friends didn’t always see eye to eye so he pulled them together by getting them to work together on our sporting clay shoot fundraiser. His message to them was, “do the right thing and come together for a great cause and support our veterans that have sacrificed for us.” Through this message of unity this sporting clay shoot has become one of the largest in the state of Mississippi! During this time he has tweaked and refined the shoot to be more successful every year. The mantra is always to make more, spend less and put on a fun shoot that all levels of participants can get behind.
Along with John, our organizers for this year are Leigh Ann Vanlandingham, Sally Sheffield, and Lesa Wilson, with the help and assistance from Turcotte Shooting Range where the shoot will take place on April 13th in Canton, MS. There are many great people involved in support this team of organizers and we thank all of them for their work and support! To be a part of the extraordinary day as a participant, volunteer or sponsor visit our website event page at WarriorBonfireProgram.org/ClayShoot
Stronger Standing Together
Partnering with other Veteran Care Organizations just makes sense! Each entity bringing their resources to the table stretches the hard earned dollars that our donors and sponsors have given us, much further. When the other organization we are working with makes the statement that "it's all about the Veterans," we know we have a partner we can trust. Over the years there have been many, but there are a few that work with us on an ongoing basis.
Veterans Airlift Command
Sometimes we need help getting our members from far away places to an event. They have created a small army of private pilots across the nation who donate their time, fuel and planes to transport wounded veterans, who experience difficultly flying commercial, to various events. Mostly the service is used for medical care and therapeutic needs. We are grateful for their service and commitment to our wounded Veteran community.
Southern Heritage Air Foundation
AKA SHAF provides us a home base so to speak, located near Vicksburg, Mississippi where we were founded, this museum which keeps war birds flying and personal historic accounts of local WWII Veterans alive offers us storage and office space, provides amazing flights for our Purple Hearts in their T6 and P51, provides air transportation and raises funds for us every other year at their air show The Best Little Airshow in the World. They also help man many of our booths in the area as well as offer staff support at some of largest fundraisers with their awesome volunteers. Our unending thanks goes out to SHAF.
San Diego, California based organization that offers local veterans the opportunities to scuba dive, surf, fly, and build off road vehicles for competitive purposes also co-hosts an annual bonfire event on the beaches of Oceanside, California in September. This event offers us the opportunity to take individuals that rarely or never have been to California to camp on the beach, attend the airshow at Miramar and get lessons to surf the waves. In turn we have introduced WP to our network of organizational support and has grown to be an awesome partnership.
Whitetail Warrior Project, Inc.
This Alabama based group co-hosts us every year at Water Valley Lodge in Gilbertown, AL to put on a top notch deer hunt as one of our Bonfire events. During this venture they meet new members offering them the ability to build their network and reach while helping us to provide our service and offerings to our current member roles. Thankful for their support of service.
The Ranch Ministries
What a powerful organization this is as they serve military veterans in a variety of ways but always through the power of God. Each year The Ranch Ministries team hosts the WBP and our members that are confined to wheelchairs and they have worked to develop their property to break barriers that keep these Veterans from being truly in the hunt. Four years in a row we have been able offer a tremendous Pheasant Hunt and starting in 2019 we introduce Cajun Rodeo, which offers some fun in go carts, the shooting range, fishing and to experience a close up view of what Rodeo school looks like! The Cajun part now pulls in Wounded War Heroes of Louisiana who will provide the craw-fish!
10 Can Outdoors
Florida based organization that provides various programs for wounded veterans and first responders through retreats and classes that aim to empower these brave individuals and reintegrate them back into society with purpose. Their strong focus on post-traumatic growth, family unity and healing moral wounds through faith and family, makes them a perfect fit with our organization. In 2019 we will implement our first event with 10 Can Outdoors as they co-host and navigate our members in kayaks and canoes along the Suwanee River in north Florida.
REAch, Inc. Wounded Veterans Program
Resources Exchange Program has allowed us to introduce to our new and existing Purple Heart members with a toolbox full of new tools, shipped directly to their door, valued at $400 and zero expense to the veteran. Our collaboration centers around the mindset that we are both providing tools for the betterment of the veterans lives. Since 2018 over 100 toolboxes have been shipped to our members! For WBP this is a wonderful way that we can impact their lives immediately upon registering with us while they wait for a retreat event. For REAch, they are serving more which keeps their product only donors from Morgan Stanely and DeWalt engaged and encouraged to give back to those that served.
All of these organization supports our collective overall goals to effect change in the lives of our Purple Heart Veteran in three core areas...
-Live Life Free of Guilt
-Build Better Relationships
-Participate in Community
We are Stronger Standing Together!
To learn more or to donate visit us at warriorbonfireprogram.org
“Keep moving forward, keep moving forward” is the mantra for many of our Veterans who are experiencing the loss and reminders of their fallen brothers and sisters. Daily they search to find ways to fill the void of the empty chair all while managing the burden of reasoning and understanding of the outcomes of those horrific fateful days when they watched their friend die before their eyes. “Could I have done something different? Why him and not me? Man, I miss his jokes, he was the funniest guy I’ve ever known.” These are comments that we have heard often at the bonfire from Veterans struggling to make sense of it all.
Now we find ourselves facing a different spin, post combat days. For a good many of our Veterans, acceptance can be made of the loss of life during times of war and combat, but what doesn’t make sense to these combat veterans is the continued loss of life at home, on safer soil, due to suicide. We are finding more and more, that we encounter Veterans dealing with multiple brothers and sisters taking their own lives in recent years which creates a new need for the type of therapy we offer at Warrior Bonfire Program.
At each of our Signature Bonfires where we formally retire the American Flag we honor those fallen service members who died in (or shortly after) battle alongside the Purple Hearts attending our event, but more and more often we are hearing the names of those who lost the battle post battle. For warriors who live by “no man left behind” losing a buddy in this way eats at their protective nature creating a mindset of failing their brothers in some way.
At the Warrior Bonfire Program we don’t replace those buddies but we do fill the void. We are a network of brothers and sisters that are here when needed and when we are not needed. We offer peer to peer support as we understand and we will keep you strong. Learn more at warriorbonfireprogram.org
Encouraging our members to be the best version of themselves!
-Live Life Free of Guilt
-Build Better Relationships
-Participate in Community
“It seems I was just walking through life one day at a time missing the rush of life I use to have before I was injured. It felt so good to be around veterans who have been there and have moved to something better." This is a quote from Purple Heart Stephen Blair who attended our recent Pig Hunt Bonfire in Warren, Texas all the way from Alaska!
It’s hard for many to understand how attending a trip with people you don’t know, to hunt wild animals, could be therapeutic. Especially a hunt such as this one where they literally chase down and stick wild pigs, pigs that are greatly damaging property, preying on other animals all over Texas and are repopulating too quickly to control. Now not all our Veterans enjoy this which is why we offer all sorts of various activities, but for those that do, here’s how it goes.
Each of our attending Veterans are paired with a team of professional guides, they plan their mission, which direction to go, who on the team performs which duties and always cover the safety briefings with the reminder to be watching out for each other, having their backs. What does this sound like? The military missions performed by our Combat Veterans and the chance to once again revisit and experience that internal charge that is missing in their daily lives. In our seven years of operations, we have not heard once that any of our Veterans regret serving their country and almost all of them say they would do it again in a heartbeat. Also, remember, many of our members injuries began their process of discharge, changing their course of life and purpose forever.
Stephen was skeptical about traveling with the Warrior Bonfire or any other organization but this event he says helped to pull him out of slump he’s been in since he retired after 38 years of service. “It brought back the camaraderie and brotherhood I’ve been missing since I got out, made me feel part of something I use to have in the Army but lost once it was over. It felt good to be part of something again.” As Stephen traveled back home to Alaska he realized the awesome feeling and change of attitude he had and looked forward to his family’s reaction as well. "Thank you again from the bottom of my heart I truly appreciate it as well as my family will appreciate the change I feel!”
Thank you to all the great Americans in Southeast Texas that helped us to put on this event! Our hosts at Triple D Ranch Event Center in Warren, TX Judy and Cody Lewis, land owner Cody Stewart & guide teams, event organizers Justin Lewis and Stephen Maxwell, the cooking team of Victor Catalanotto, Wes Broussard, Kyle Lee, Byron Hlavinka, Kelby Bradley, Clyde Sory, and Coy Sewell, and the numerous other volunteers that made this operation run incredibly smooth!
Click HERE to see more photos!
Our founders hunt at Valley Park Plantation occurs just one time a year. It is our premier hunt and the opportunity for our Purple Heart members to have one on one time with our founders Dan and Hunter Fordice. The wait list for this hunt invite is long as many of our members look forward to the opportunity to thank personally those that started it all, it is also an opportunity for the founders to thank the individual veterans that have helped the Warrior Bonfire in return for what the program has done for them. This location is where the Warrior Bonfire Program began, where the idea was sparked and the focus on grouping small numbers together at a time to achieve the optimum environment needed to have some difficult, open communications among injured veterans. "You give me 5 or 6 others just like me, sitting around a campfire and that is all the therapy I need," stated Greg Williams in 2012. Since that time we have provided that very environment 68 times across 18 states, having grown from 4 events a year to 18 with a current goal of 24 per year. Thanks to our donors, sponsors, and volunteers we trust that we will get there very soon!
The Valley Park Plantation Founders Hunt certainly will make a hunter feel good with the beautiful scenery and the abundance of targets but as we like to say often, "it is not about the hunt!" "It doesn't matter how many deer we kill, what matters is the chance to honor our fallen brothers at the bonfire and spend time with others that understand that loss," Purple Heart Veteran Allen P. Our members have also reported that simply sitting quietly in the outdoors helps them to find peace in a life of struggles with managing symptoms from traumatic brain injuries (TBI), post traumatic stress (PTSd) and physical injuries. Learning the ability to quiet the mind and think of positive thoughts helps to curb unhealthy sleep habits that can lead to depression and thoughts of suicide.
At the Warrior Bonfire Program, we continually work to help our members to discover ways to better themselves, their support/family relationships and to find purpose that leads to productivity in their personal and local communities. Healing beyond injury is what we do! Please help us to spread the word for our most deserving veterans, those that have sacrificed for our freedoms.
We thank our partners and sponsors for making this possible but in particular, ESPN Out of Bounds The Zone Radio Show in Jackson, MS for raising $10 at the first Cornhole Classic, Patriot Motorsports and Valley Park Plantation.
WBP Team writers
Blogs are written by staff members of the Warrior Bonfire Program along with guest writers.