Rekindling the bonds of brotherhood: Program brings combat vets to county for healing, camaraderie

A group of combat veterans visiting Grand County with the nonprofit entity Warrior Bonfire Program relax and chat while sitting around a bonfire near Granby.
Courtesy photo / Aaron Allmon

From the ongoing Syrian Civil War, to the still simmering conflict in Afghanistan, the decision to invade countries in the early 2000s still reverberates around the globe. Closer to home, though, the men and women who fought those conflicts on behalf of the American people will forever bear the scars of those conflagrations.

For them, healing is not a goal but a journey; a road to be taken, hopefully, in the company of others who have experienced the same tribulations.

Twice a year the Mississippi-based veterans nonprofit Warrior Bonfire Program brings a small group of combat veterans to Grand County to do just that; to relax, recreate and heal alongside their brothers in arms.

While in Grand County the veterans spend their time skiing, snowmobiling, tubing and generally trying to find some semblance of the sense of purpose and belonging they felt while serving.

“This gives us the same sense of camaraderie we once had in war,” explained Gulf War veteran and amputee Anthony “Tony” Drees. “It also gives us an opportunity to let our guards down and begin some healing. Civilians may see us skiing but they don’t see the bonds we are building and strengthening among each other, knowing that on this pathway we are not alone.”

Drees was one of a half-dozen veterans Warrior Bonfire brought to Grand County this winter for their annual visit.

Unlike most of the men who attend Warrior Bonfire’s annual events though Drees’ war came over a decade earlier than most of his counterparts. Drees served in the U.S. Army during the first Gulf War and in February 1991 he was one of the survivors of the deadliest Scud missile attack of the war. Just 23 at the time Drees has gone on to have 74 surgeries in his life. He has found substantial success in civilian life, including obtaining a masters degree and founding his own nonprofit called Veterans Passport to Hope. But he has also struggled through many of the same problems that veterans, and combat vets especially, face such as substance abuse and interpersonal issues.

“We as warriors are athletes,” Drees said. “As warriors, when we get injured and benched, psychologically we feel discarded by the team that won. This rekindles some of those feelings of being back in the big game and it also builds sustainable pathways to new, positive methods of camaraderie.”

For Drees and his fellow veteran Kyle Nichols, both amputees, much of last week’s trip was spent skiing at Winter Park with instructors from the National Sports Center for the Disabled, or NSCD. Originally from California Nichols grew up on the eastern plains of Colorado before joining the Army at age 17. An infantryman, he served two tours in both Afghanistan before losing his leg after stepping on an IED on July 4, 2011. For the 29-year-old Nichols the trip to Grand County was an opportunity to have fun in a way that is not always possible now that he lives in Texas.

“Going from military to civilian life came at me fast,” Nichols said. “I am still adapting and just trying to get accustomed to the lifestyle. Warrior Bonfire is a great program that is trying to help veterans find their way in life. This week is the happiest I have been in a long time.”

Also visiting Grand County last week was Air Force veteran and combat photographer Aaron Allmon. Allmon got into the U.S. Air Force in the mid-90s and spent two decades traveling the world documenting the realities of war up close. From Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq, Allmon has seen more of war than most can attest.

The father of three, who photographically documented the trip much like he documented missions during his military career, echoed the sentiments of his fellow veterans explaining the impacts and difficulties of transitioning from a life lived in combat to a life lived in the comparative peace and quiet of the United States.

“You go from having this high energy high impact life to nothing,” he said. “I think a lot of vets have a hard time trying to figure out what to put in that void.”

For Allmon, the week up in Grand County was, like for the other veterans on the trip, first and foremost an opportunity to feel, if only for a little while, that ethereal sense of belonging that can be found only in tight-knit groups.

“The significance of this, for me, is to get to experience a brotherhood again,” the lanky Texan said. “Warrior Bonfire gives us the opportunity to have our brothers again. We all sit around and joke, make fun of each other, have serious talks, it is almost like being deployed again, expect it’s a lot more fun.”

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