Today marks the 5th anniversary of the very first Warrior Bonfire event at Valley Park, Mississippi, January 3, 2013. Tomorrow, January 4, 2018 we will kick off that same hunt and it will also mark our 50th Bonfire event overall. We have come a long way in five years growing from an average of 4 events a year to now 18. Our plan is to continue to grow with our events across the country as well as build the Bonfire Lodge at Camp Down Range in Clinton, MS and develop programs to take place there on a consistent basis for our Purple Heart Veterans.
In the later part of 2012, the vision of the Warrior Bonfire Program began to form in the mind of our founder, Dan Fordice, as he often looked for ways to serve and help his fellow veterans who suffered from injuries both physical and mental. Dan served for a total of 13 years between the U.S. Army and the Mississippi National Guard and it is truly his passion to find resources and connections to relieve any possible obstacles.
Dan found himself in a conversation with SFC (RET. USA) Charles Gregory Williams, who sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury when a Rocket Propelled Grenade struck and exploded a 50 Cal ammunition box two feet from his head and was later medically retired in November 2011 for wounds received while in combat. Greg commented that he could spend a full day with a PhD certified counselor and not come close to the therapeutic value of sitting around a bonfire with five or six guys who were there. Dan quickly responded, “We will provide the bonfire!”
Finding this new purpose to fulfill his passion, Dan began putting in place the structure to build environments that would be most beneficial to our Purple Heart recipients. On the eve of December 30, 2012, Dan organized a small event with family and friends on the sandbar bank of the Mississippi River, with dinner, music and a bonfire. It was then he announced his plans as we gathered around the fire and introduced many of us to the formal retirement of our tired and tattered American Flags. It was then that the Warrior Bonfire Program began.
Dan jumped on putting together trips and bonfires faster than you could light a match. He pulled resources from family and friends, for the use of hunting clubs, transportation, food donations, and more. Each trip continues to build more structure and organization as well as build the fire in our hearts to light the way.
Now the Bonfire has traveled and spread to twenty states, with nearly 250 members being served through various support programs such as Jammin at the Bonfire, Hangin at the Bonfire, Hangin with Heroes, Peer to Peer support program known as the Ambassador Program and our signature Bonfire Adventure events. The Warrior Bonfire Program is recognized by the Combined Federal Campaign, the R4 Alliance, Guidestar Silver, America’s Warrior Partnership, and Great Non-Profits Top Rated organization for three years in a row.
We thank all of our supporters, donors, partners and volunteers for all of their hard work and belief in our programs to keep our Purple Heart Veterans moving forward and striving for a full life.
Join Our Mission and Ignite the Bonfire with continuous support of $15 Monthly
The success of 2017 is truly a reflection of our donors and partners. Without you we couldn't have:
Increased our membership by 50%
Added 18 more events to our records
Visited 14 different states
Actively served 108 Purple Heart Veterans
Supported our membership of nearly 250
Your commitment of an ongoing monthly donation of $15 offers the Warrior Bonfire Program the ability to plan future events and give our Purple Heart Veterans that are struggling from their injuries sustained in combat, more opportunities to:
Find support to combat self medication
See hope in the future
Find a new purpose beyond service
Join Us to IGNITE the Bonfire!
"Remember, you're not just sending six guys hunting, you're convincing six guys to not kill themselves."
~ Purple Heart Greg Williams
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The Military community is truly a small world. Even though 2% of the population of the United States can be a large number of people, service members can easily find themselves in conversations that quickly create familiarity.
These are the questions that come up quickly and instantly it’s like these people have known each other their entire lives! These connections make our bonfire events fun and meaningful, but the real doozy, are the times when two service members actually reconnect with an old battle buddy that they lost contact information. This happens far less this day in time due to technology and social media, but it does happen.
On our last Bonfire event at Featherhorn Farm in Pinewood, South Carolina, this very situation occurred. Our group was being hosted at this location at the same time as two other veteran care organizations serving Purple Hearts. Our Warrior Bonfire Ambassador / Bonfire Leader Tim Bell has never sounded so excited after an event as he did this one. Bell ran into a battle buddy from his time in Fallujah around the time he was injured. “Being able to connect again was really cool and big surprise” Bell said. His emotion can’t fully be reflected in print, but his voice said it all.
Once again we see proof of good life changing things come from putting these events together! The entire group of Purple Heart Veterans came away from this hunt feeling connected and most of all appreciated for their service and sacrifice. Our new partners at Featherhorn Farm, along with owner Jimmy Lee and hunt organizer Chad Ardis, made this happen. Their top notch experience and service to our group couldn’t have been better! We are excited to announce that plans are in the works to make this an annual event and look forward to a great partnership!
Check out our photos from this event! South Carolina Bonfire
When the Warrior Bonfire Program began we simply wanted to give combat Veterans the ability to come together, hang out, do some hunting or fishing, and feel comfortable talking about anything they wanted to talk about around a campfire. We quickly learned the impact and that we were not just taking six guys out to hunt but we were convincing six guys not to kill themselves. Immediately we saw that we needed to keep the groups small to get the best outcome but as we progressed we began to see that we needed to be careful in order to sustain the integrity of the group. At the time, "stolen valor" was becoming rather common and we could not afford to be taken advantage. Our model of arranging retreats with activities all over the country can be an expensive one to be serving so few at a time but the outcome of true progress, healing, and growth for our veterans is powerful and proven to work.
There is no doubt that we wish we had an over abundance of funding to serve everyone from all theater's of war, but we simply don't. Therefore, we looked at how to focus our programs, to provide the best service we could with the resources available. The choice to serve post 9/11 Purple Hearts primarily came at the request of those we were currently serving as they felt most comfortable knowing that they would in fact be hanging out with other veterans that had been directly injured in combat. At the time many of them were frustrated by being placed in large groups with veterans that had never served in combat or even injured in combat. Yes, all of those that have served should be treated with respect, offered special opportunities, and be appreciated for answering the call but this group needs something more and different.
The trauma of being wounded at the hand of the enemy is where we focus our attention.
This designation provides three things
1 - It protects our donors as they know exactly who they are supporting.
2 - It protects the organization as we have the ability to request documentation to verify the receipt of the Purple Heart medal.
And most importantly
3 - It protects the veterans in the circle to know that the one sitting across from them completely understands
As an organization, we understand we can't do it all and that is why we work in partnership with other organizations that provide services for veteran families, veteran funding, connecting them with service dogs, combat veterans services, disabled veteran services and those that provide all sorts of specific healing activities. We also work very hard to not have an empty seat, last minute spots that open up due to unforeseen circumstances a veteran finds themselves in such as a VA appointment scheduled for them, a death in the family, or illness, we will use our database of non Purple Heart combat veterans with a 75% or higher VA rating, to fill that retreat spot, as we do understand that there are those that should have received a Purple Heart and did not. As a military organization we always look to support all military when possible as this pulls in a larger group of serving men and women that want to be involved to give back as well. In this effort we developed Jammin at the Bonfire, a musical program facilitated at VA's around the country and Hangin at the Bonfire, an event with a meal and a campfire to bring veterans together on a monthly basis.
To learn more on the path that our Purple Heart Veterans are on, read Purple Hearts Made of Gold
Veterans Day found the Warrior Bonfire Program doing what it always does year round, bringing Purple Hearts together, working the issues and celebrating life! Back in Vienna, Missouri for its 2nd Annual Missouri Fishing Trip at Charwood Lake, this event is all about getting off the grid, relaxing and breathing, far away from the stresses of the world. Charwood is a private, 40-acre lake with a lodge on 200 beautiful, wooded acres in central Missouri. The Bonfire traveled far to find this sanctuary in the cold with three Purple Hearts coming from sunny Florida and one trekking in from Colorado. The travel was long but the welcome was worth it as they were greeted with a yummy pulled pork dinner for our hungry travelers.
Like all of our events, this group connected immediately, taking to the game room after dinner, for friendly competition and disarming the barrier walls that have been built around their injuries and dark memories. The blanket of security enveloped this group quickly, allowing for some the first real opportunity to shed the pain. Late into the evening after a long day of travel this group fell fast asleep and woke up late to start the day on Friday. A good breakfast at the Market kicked off the day and fueled this crew for fishing and some vicious bantering at our private fishing "Tournament". With every catch the battle of the words increased; “I caught the first fish”, “that isn’t a fish, it’s a minnow”, “you stole my pole”, etc. This is way more healing than it appears! These interactions create comfort and commonality.
These interactions set the stage for our more intense sessions of "Pain Shared is Pain Divided, Joy Shared is Joy Multiplied". Trauma for these brothers and sisters was shared and shed, washed away in tears and healed in hugs. The joy this group felt for one of their own opening up for the first time was incredibly overwhelming and will not be forgotten.
November 11, Veterans Day, this group stepped back in time for a bit to enjoy a ride around the lake in an old 5 ton Army dump truck, driven by Purple Heart Nathan Wood, followed by more fishing, more bantering and then ending with our signature Bonfire ceremony. A very appropriate ending to a very special day. Purple Heart Jonathan Flores stated about the ceremony, "I loved the flag ceremony, it was very meaningful and gave me the closure that I never had. It gave me a way to show respect for my brothers I lost along the way."
Special acknowledgment and thanks, goes out to Dr. Mike Pasque for sharing his property with us, Dave Pasque of Denver, CO, for hosting the event and Ken Miner of St Louis, MO, for coming to support our Purple Heart Recipients. You are all part of the strong foundation of the Warrior Bonfire Program through your tireless efforts in making our Bonfires special.
See the photos from this event by clicking HERE
The Bonfire Ruck is a new yearly Warrior Bonfire Program fundraising and awareness campaign designed to raise awareness of the rise in Veteran Suicide and the challenges of PTSD. It is our hope that adventure seeking individuals that want to help make a difference and have a passion for bettering the lives of our combat wounded veterans, will accept extraordinary challenges to complete for the purpose of drawing attention to our mission.
The Bonfire Ruck can happen almost anywhere at anytime. This year, starting October 16th, 2017, two U.S. Marines will walk the entire width of the state of Mississippi. The challenge is 155 miles from the Alabama state line to the Mississippi River in Vicksburg, MS. The goal is to complete it in five days, weather permitting. (Link to support website page)
The Bonfire Ruck is easily duplicated in any region or adventure, and funds raised will go directly to benefit the Warrior Bonfire Program to fulfill the mission. At the Warrior Bonfire Program we attack the the major fundamental problems sighted by the Purple Heart Veterans that have attended our programs, isolation and self-medication. Both of these issues are directly linked to PTSD and Suicide.
Our programs and retreats are designed to set the example and expectation to our Purple Hearts and combat veterans to push hard to battle these bad habits. We show our veterans how to pull out of isolation by going on our retreats and trust being around those just like themselves to find support. While at our program events, alcohol and non-prescription illegal substances are not permitted, again offering the ability to experience time not using those crutches while being surrounded by support of their peers. For some, the initial realization of this is a bit shocking but with the support of everyone present, they see it is very doable. The small group of six is the game changer that makes us unique and successful.
If you're interested in doing a Bonfire Ruck whether it be climbing Pikes Peak, walking the Appalachian Trail, kayaking the Mississippi River or wherever you love to be, please contact us at email@example.com
Learn about our Bonfire Ruck: Between the Lines
#BonfireRuck #PTSD #VeteranSuicidePrevention
Escaping “The Trap” is what we do at the Bonfire and our last trip highlighted that this is an answer to the growing problem. Kentucky is officially now, an annual Bonfire destination! This trip provided the perfect mix of activities from sailing, fishing, sporting clays, boating and swimming with much needed down time and relaxation. Sometimes our events can be a bit rigorous with a tight itinerary to keep our Purple Hearts moving but we are finding the trips that allow for more time to chill and talk, while in the outdoors, are most beneficial trips. Board of Director member Lloyd Munn, who assisted on this event when asked of his experience stated strongly and with conviction, "this is the REAL deal!"
The common theme here was the conversation of how to keep combat injured veterans from withdrawing and being alone. As Purple Heart David Connelly stated, “guys isolating themselves is never safe.” Very often on these trips we hear comments such as, “getting all up in your head is a trap” or “I just sit in my workshop and only come out to eat”. This is why we do what we do at the Warrior Bonfire Program; we give them the opportunity, at no cost and little effort, to get out of these dark places. We show the example of how to physically get moving, we give them the connections to call each other and go! It is our goal that over time, these men and women will find strength in this practice and take it home to their families, fellow veterans, and communities.
Another area of discussion and that our participants feel the need of more attention, is that more and more we are learning that Veterans are choosing to self-medicate rather than risk going to the VA’s and being prescribed medication that have the zombie like side effects. Self-medicating with drugs and alcohol coupled with isolation is incredibly dangerous. As the suicide rate among veterans continues to be higher than any other demographic, we need to focus on solutions.
The Warrior Bonfire Program believes that solution is exactly doing what we do. Showing the example to get out, be a part of a community, go new places, try new things, be around peers that will tell you and set an expectation to be better, make better choices, be healthier and choose living large rather than living lonely. The network of the Brotherhood is out there.
We thank all those of the Grand Rivers, KY community for their support and generosity by providing fishing, sailing, live music entertainment and their “unbridled spirit!”
Click Here for Photos of the trip!
On September 11, 2017, two schools in opposition on the field and courts came together for a greater cause, in honor of first responders and military service men and women. Presbyterian Christian School of Hattiesburg, MS and Jackson Academy of Jackson, MS not only competed Monday evening in volley ball, soccer and softball, but they brought the competition to a higher level.
Playing sports is wonderful for many reasons such as team building, health, mental training, and competition, but in addition to these, the best reason to play sports is for the life lessons that are taught. Playing or working for something bigger than yourself, like many of our first responders and military do everyday.
Coaches Jacob Morgan and Christina Lawrence, along with PCS Athletic Director, Josh Dorman, led the charge to pull together a fundraising operation where both schools sold over 275 shirts and all proceeds went to the Warrior Bonfire Program. As part of Patriot Day at Presbyterian Christian School, shirts designed with a 9 on the front and an 11 on the back displayed with "Never Forget", were sold to students and parents, raising $2,000 in support of our Purple Hearts. Local vendor American Graphics partnered with the operation to offer high quality shirts at an extremely low cost allowing the schools to donate all proceeds.
Patriot Day consisted of a morning Pep Rally, where education of the events of 9/11 was presented, a moment of silence, and local firefighters, policemen, and military were honored. Also, at all events on campus, volleyball, soccer and softball, again recognition was given to local first responders and military.
In attendance on the behalf of Warrior Bonfire Program was Lloyd Munn. Not only is Munn a popular local musician in Hattiesburg and father of a PCS alum, but he serves on our Board of Directors and organized our ever growing and energetic, Jammin at the Bonfire, program. Munn had just returned that day from assisting on the Warrior Bonfires' 43rd signature Bonfire event held in Grand Rivers, Kentucky. Munn shared his experience and witness of his time with six Purple Heart veterans over the weekend. Munn summed it up with, "it's the real deal!"
The Warrior Bonfire Program is extremely honored to have been chosen to benefit from this awesome display of support. We thank all those that organized and participated! Being that we serve Post 9/11 Purple Hearts, those that truly stepped up to battle the evil that changed American lives forever, this gesture touched our hearts.
If we do not show our young Americans that we support those that keep us safe in return for their service, why would they ever consider stepping up to serve and protect.? They are our future!
Our first Bonfire in Utah has been burned and we hope this particular fire will spread! Unlike the wildfires that this part of the country typically has to fight, our Bonfire creates life and healing. Our stay at Sportsman’s Paradise at Whites Ranch in Paradise, Utah provided the optimum spot for “Reel Recovery”! Our Purple Heart Veterans were welcomed to fly fish at any time of the day at this catch and release facility which provided unbelievable peace from the enormous stresses and anxieties of the world.
"This is an great facility and is perfect what we are trying to do at our Bonfire events." Purple Heart WBP Ambassador Stacey Rice
Along with great peace we found empowerment through the message of Adapt and Overcome as we blazed trails through the mountains on horseback! Due to the generosity of Utah State Universities’ Extension services and their Ride Utah program, the Warrior Bonfire veterans had two days of trail rides with horses particularly matched with the veterans’ needs. The time and care taken to match horse to veteran, created a safe environment that fostered trust and comfort. Horseback riding as a therapy is one of the very best tools for both physical and mental injuries. While on horseback, the rider must find confidence and be able to let go or control his or her anxieties in order for the horse to follow commands. Horses can sense the rider’s inner being and will gladly take control if the rider does not. The trail ride experience forces the rider to focus on the task at hand which eliminates the ability to think about other things, especially negative things. Learning this mindset as a tool to manage challenges due to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injuries and major physical injuries, offers our veterans the ability to get out more often and experience life, find purpose and once again give of themselves to society for the greater good.
For combat veterans with PTSD, TBI and physical injuries, managing every day stresses brought on by political arguments, opinions on social media, traffic noise, financial pressure, marital stress and many other things that may be out of their ability to control, can be suffocating. Therefore, providing opportunities to disconnect yet be connected at the same time with those just like themselves can be an incredible life saver.
“To be around other Purple Hearts is so good because I feel like they are just like me and I don’t feel like I’m being judged.” Purple Heart Participant (to remain anonymous)
Activities on our trips offer new tools and experiences but the most powerful thing we offer is the small group environment made up of all vetted Purple Hearts. This platform creates a comfortable
space which encourages these men and women to talk through and share their burdens without feeling judged or that their struggles aren’t real because everyone there has felt the same. Throughout the weekend issues that are heavy and full of guilt, anger, and frustration quickly become small and manageable as the veterans all remind each other of their strength and ability to persevere. The conversations of war stories, the good ones and often funny ones, returns them to a time before they were injured, a time where only life and death mattered and there was no room to worry about all the other little things in life. In an odd way, it was all simpler. This reminder has an empowering effect; it reminds them that they are in fact in control of many things and to focus only on what they can control. Here among brothers they return to the image of the strong warrior, they are uplifted, they are at peace and they stand ready to face the demons ahead.
Visit our photos from this event and check out the superb services from our two sponsors for this trip. We couldn't have done it without their support!
Whenever a group of combat veterans are gathered, retired or not, the potential for an emergency is always rather high. It’s not the type of emergency that most civilians think of first when at a Veteran event, but more on the lines of grown men reverting back to their childhood, a bunch of gigantic 11 year old boys running a muck and playing around. For the most part, they are fairly responsible in this ruckus but sometimes forget, like all adults, gravity takes its toll, bodies don’t react like they once did and then we find a problem on our hands. Unfortunately accidents happen and we do our best to be prepared, but the most amazing thing to witness is what happens all around the incident.
Military training is full of grinding drills, over and over in all sorts of weather and terrain. Whether the training is in the hot muggy Georgia summer sun or on the bitter cold mountains in Alaska skiing downhill with a 50 plus pound ruck on their back, the United States warriors are conditioned in ways to respond to an emergency that they sometimes don’t even understand. The protocols and mapping of that training has been coded into their hard drive, meaning it’s still there even when it’s not practiced and has been filed away for years. As a result, this training is recalled into action without searching for the file on the hard drive as if it is primary behavioral automatic response.
Most of the Veterans that we serve truly believe in their heart of hearts that they had deleted that file of emergency training. Many of them fear that due to their horrific trauma in combat that ultimately removed them from the theater of war, that they now have no ability to jump into action if an emergency appears in front of them. It’s hard to remember, if not a Veteran, that these men and women are natural protectors, and being a protector is a good portion of why they joined the military in the first place. Therefore, this fear of freezing and not being able to respond in an emergency to protect those around them can cause a debilitating and paralyzing sense of self. If they believe they are not able to respond in an emergency, they then believe they cannot protect their wives or children. If they believe they cannot protect those they love, then they begin to believe they are not worthy or deserving of having those loved ones, a happy life or a life at all.
What we have witnessed repeatedly on our weekend events have been some incredible breakthroughs of facing this fear head on and learning to trust again in the training our Veterans have received. We certainly do not work emergencies in on our trips to use as therapy but when they happen, we do address the powerful realizations that the fear of not being able to respond, simply shouldn’t be in their thoughts at all. The emergencies that have happened are mostly not to anyone in the group but those around us, such as people in a crowd where we are, a hunting dog injured by a wild hog, or natural medical emergency of a staff member, have presented unique opportunities for growth.
At the time of such an emergency, like a practiced emergency plan would play out, all six Veterans simply attending a weekend trip of fun, immediately transform back into the warrior on the battlefield. Those that were medics, assess the situation, perform life vitals checks and basic first aid, while the others call 911, organize the scene, and protect all others from any potential secondary accidents. They all automatically pull that file from the hard drive and go to work, they all find a role to support and engage. They all step back and see that they can in fact face trauma again, that they can protect and that they can fully function.
The root of most all stresses and anxieties is fear and any time we can combat those fears and annihilate them, we empower ourselves. Free from fear opens the door to pure joy.
WBP Team writers
Blogs are written by staff members of the Warrior Bonfire Program along with guest writers.