Grand County vets fellowship with 21st century soldiers at Warrior Bonfire Program
For over 15 years now, America has been at war.
From the rugged mountains of Afghanistan to the sun-baked deserts of Iraq, our men and women in uniform have spent over a decade sacrificing and serving. Over the past several years, Grand County, with its majestic natural beauty and abundant recreational options, has become a center for veteran rehabilitation and support programs.
Among the various organizations that bring veterans to Middle Park is the Mississippi-based Warrior Bonfire Program, which focuses on post 9/11 combat veterans. Last week, the group held a week-long event in Grand County with six men who have served. On Thursday night, the group held a dinner with local veterans from the pre-9/11 era at the Granby/Grand County Airport.
The program was founded by Army veteran Dan Fordice and developed out of a conversation he had with a veteran in 2012. The veteran told Fordice there was more therapeutic value in sitting around a bonfire for an evening with half a dozen veterans than could be derived from spending a full day with a Ph.D.-certified counselor.
“I love solders,” Fordice said. “Serving with them for 13 years was the greatest privilege of my life.”
Fordice explained the idea of the program originally developed around hunting trips. “We had a hunting trip in January of 2013,” he continued. “We brought in six guys. Five minutes after their arrival they were sitting around the dinner table and it was like they were all in the same unit and best friends. They were working on each other, healing each other.”
Fordice said he realized the immense value of such fellowship for veterans and shortly afterwards planned a ski trip with veterans to a cabin he owned in Grand County. “It really just blossomed from there,” he said.
“Brining them hunting, snowmobiling or skiing, that is just an excuse,” Fordice said. “We bring them here for that kind of stuff but sitting around a table at night discussing stuff, that is really what they are here for.”
Fordice pointed out that most of the veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan are in their 20s and 30s. Actuarial tables estimate most will live into their 80s or 90s.
“I started interviewing World War II pilots about 20 years ago,” Fordice said. “I can’t tell you how many told me they still cry themselves to sleep at night. I am proud that our country has started to realize PTSD is a real issue, but we shouldn’t have guys who fought for us crying themselves to sleep 70 years after a war.”
Fordice went on to discuss what he views as our collective responsibility to veterans.
“People say these guys did this because our country asked them to. But that is giving us a bye we don’t deserve,” he said. “They didn’t do it because the country asked, they did it because I asked and you asked. We are seeing the effects of what we asked them to do. I have a strong sense that the generation that decides to go to war has to pay for that war; and we haven’t been paying. We as citizens are going to have to step up to the plate and help as well.”
Fordice was quick to acknowledge the work done by some of Grand County’s other veterans support organizations such as Project Sanctuary, which is lead by Heather Ehle. “Project Sanctuary is doing great work,” Fordice said. “We love Heather. She has been a tremendous help to us and is five or six years ahead of us in terms of development.”
The Warrior Bonfire Program is a certified 501(c)3 nonprofit that holds events throughout the year centralized around Clinton, Mississippi. Each winter, it brings groups of veterans to Grand County to ski, snowmobile, tube and generally enjoy the High Country. Each iteration typically includes six veterans along with Fordice and anyone assisting on the outing. Among each group of veterans are typically three who have lost limbs in war. The veterans are treated to ski opportunities at Ski Granby Ranch or Winter Park Resort where the veterans who are missing limbs receive ski instruction from the National Sports Center for the Disabled.
“Granby Ranch has been incredible to us,” Fordice said. “They donate the gear and lift tickets. The NSCD has been wonderful too. Everybody has been great.”
Among the veterans who attended last week’s program in Grand County were eight-year Army veteran David Inbody and Air Force Staff Sergeant Philip Giovanniello. From College Station, Texas, and rural New York, respectively, the two men had different backgrounds, but both highlighted the strong relationships forged among veterans on the trip as the core value of the program.
“Getting out here and meeting new people who have similar experiences in the military is awesome,” said Giovanniello. “To get away from everything, all the stuff back home, even for a couple of days to just forget it all and be up here with good people, that’s amazing.”
Inbody echoed his sentiments. “There is a lot of benefit from trips like these,” he said. “When a lot of people leave the military they leave behind some of that brotherhood and friendship and go home and get wrapped up in their life. To get to come on trips like this, where we are able to sit down and share experiences; that is a good thing.”
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US Forest Service officials have closed Willow Creek Reservoir in Grand County because of a potential blue-green algae bloom.