After the war
Enduring hardship has a way of bringing people together, forming bonds that will not or cannot be formed in absence of great tribulations.
For those who have endured the crucible of war that sense of comradery and brotherhood extends far beyond their time on the battlefield. Last Sunday a group of veterans, all Purple Heart recipients, headed up to Columbine Lake to meet a kindred spirit and one of a dwindling number of members of the Greatest Generation, Charles Illsley.
The veterans who went to visit Illsley were participating in a weeklong excursion in Grand County with the non-profit veterans service organization Warrior Bonfire Program. Twice a year Warrior Bonfire Program brings combat veterans and Purple Heart recipients to Grand County for a bit of quiet reflection and healing in the presence of others who know and understand the deep impacts of combat.
The Program’s participants were not from Grand County and had never met Charles Illsley but their reverence for a man who fought through World War II was palpable. Their sense of gratitude to Illsley was especially moving, as each of them had seen combat first hand and bore the cost of war in their own blood.
Warrior Bonfire Program’s President, retired Lieutenant Colonel Mike Foss, explained why the organization wanted to take the younger men to meet Illsley.
“It is always good for veterans of one generation to hear from veterans from another generation,” Foss said. “In that room we had folks from the World War II era up through today.” Foss noted every major conflict from the last 80 years of American history, with the exception of the Korean War, was represented in the room with just 10 men.
For Foss and others who help organize Warrior Bonfire Program the men assembled in that room are not super human. Rather they are regular men who took on extraordinary roles.
“They are all normal guys who did an abnormal job,” Foss said. “These guys got so much out of meeting Charles, and vice versa. They are brothers in arms regardless of when they served.”
Texas native David Guzman was one of the veterans who attended the event with Warrior Bonfire. Guzman served 16 years in the Army, attaining the rank of Sgt. E-5. Guzman was wounded while fighting near Taji Iraq in Sept. 2004.
Guzman echoed Foss’s sentiments. “I was just doing my job,” he said without any air of pretense. Guzman talked about the value of the Warrior Bonfire Program’s excursions but acknowledged it is difficult to put into words, and that sometimes words only complicate the ethereal feeling he and other veterans feel in each other’s presence.
“We have a bond a lot of people will never understand,” Guzman said, speaking of combat veterans like those in Warrior Bonfire. “It is not secretive. There is nothing to hide.” But Guzman noted the experiences, like those had during Warrior Bonfire’s summer excursion as well as the trip to see Illsley, are intentionally meant to be exclusive, for those who know the immensity of war.
“We have a mutual respect,” Guzman said. “There is a common bond all of us who have spilled our blood for this country have.”
After an initial welcome phase Illsley began asking the younger veterans questions. Illsley, who was an infantryman in WWII, smiled with pride as most of the younger men proudly proclaimed their status as former infantrymen. The group of veterans with Warrior Bonfire included two combat engineers as well. Illsley told the men he carried a Browning Automatic Rifle in WWII, “that was my engineer”, he joked.
The younger veterans sat enraptured as Illsley recounted war stories from the European Theater. He regaled the men with the story of his single handed capturing of eight German soldiers, talked about the time he shook General Patton’s hand, reminisced on his first German wife who he met at the end of the war, and stressed the absolute need to recognized the existence of the Holocaust.
As the American warriors finished up their talk and said their parting goodbyes one young veteran asked Illsley for words of wisdom. The older man stood thinking for a moment as he looked into the distance with unblinking eyes.
“Pray to God,” Illsley said.
For Foss it was an especially powerful moment. “Charles said ‘Have faith and pray to God, that is how you will heal.”
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The iconic cone-shaped building on the corner of Yampa and 11th streets in downtown Steamboat Springs was once a wood-waste burner before being moved to become the home for Sore Saddle Cyclery and Moots Bicycles.