Wounded warriors relax, reflect at air show

Published 12:30 am Sunday, October 19, 2014

Veterans Jason Deming, from left, Matt Melancon and Chuck Williams were invited to participate with the Southern Heritage Air show as part of the Warrior Bonfire Project.

Veterans Jason Deming, from left, Matt Melancon and Chuck Williams were invited to participate with the Southern Heritage Air show as part of the Warrior Bonfire Project.

A chance to talk, bond and blend in with the crowd as vintage planes whirred overhead were the best parts of Saturday’s Southern Heritage Air Foundation air show for three soldiers whose war wounds transcend physical boundaries.
Sharing the same setting to relax isn’t new for retired Army veterans Matt Melancon and Chuck Williams, and Sgt. 1st Class Jason Deming. Each has taken part in activities organized by the Warrior Bonfire Project, which since 2012 has put together hunting and ski trips, campfires and more in relaxed atmospheres for wounded veterans.
Rather, the air show gave the men a chance to keep paying it forward to other veterans.
“It’s an incredible experience,” said Melancon, a San Antonio native who lost both legs as a result of a roadside bomb while serving in Afghanistan in September 2011.
Prosthetic legs allow Melancon to get around without much of a break in stride. Getting around on the grounds at Vicksburg Tallulah Regional Airport “like any other person” was especially sweet.
“I like it because it kind of lets me be recognized on my own terms,” Melancon said.
Melancon’s first time with the bonfire group was on the slopes, after organizers got with his physical therapist about whether any prospective skiers were among his fellow recovering soldiers at Center for the Intrepid in San Antonio.
“She said, ‘I need two guys to go snowboarding!’ She told them ‘I think I have just the guy.’” That event, at the National Sports Center for the Disabled in Fort Collins, Colo., still has him in awe.
“The mountain has its way with you,” Melancon said. “It’ll do a lot more than your frivolous attempts to conquer it.”
Williams, a survivor of a combat-related brain injury in Afghanistan in 2006, was the inspiration for the bonfire group. His story and involvement with Wounded Warrior Association of East Texas and West Louisiana inspired group founder Dan Fordice to start organizing small events when the two met in 2011, when Williams took medical retirement after 22 years in the Army.
“We can talk about things that you can’t talk to anyone else about,” Williams said of the outings, which earlier this year featured a trip to a casino for men and shopping spree for wives. “You know they can empathize with you.
“I can open up and talk to these guys about things I can’t talk to my wife about. You don’t want to drag your loved ones into that world. You don’t want them to picture some of the stuff you’ve seen.”
That’s a concept Deming deals with daily.
Deming, a Carrollton, Ga. native, did two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan. He sustained a severe back injury in May 2011 when an explosion rocked a supply convoy he was leading in Iraq with the 4th Brigade Special Troops Battalion. His son and daughter were three and seven years old at the time.
“It wasn’t that I got hurt that affected me,” Deming said. “It was that I got hurt with kids. I never knew what fear was until I deployed with kids. Courage isn’t the absence of fear. It’s having fear and still doing your job.”
Seven months after the explosion, he found himself on a hunting trip organized by the Vicksburg group.
“Even though your family, friends and everybody wants to understand, they’ll just get the cute, half-hearted funny stories,” Deming said. “I told them if you want to know what I did, you can ask but make sure you want to know the answer.”
Deming retires Dec. 15, but won’t vacate any chance to help wounded soldiers bond and cope with their emotional needs.
“Being here is about the fact I can be here and help the organization raise funds for future events to help all the guys they’re going to help after me,” Deming said. “It’s an honor to do it.”

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