WARRIOR BONFIRE PROGRAM: Vicksburg organization for combat veterans began with a simple conversation

Published 1:08 pm Friday, December 7, 2018

It was during an air show in 2012 that Dan Fordice happened to cross paths with a veteran who shared a secret with him on the flight back home. It was a secret so profound and yet so simple that it launched the Warrior Bonfire Program.

Chuck Williams, a survivor of a combat-related brain injury in Afghanistan in 2006, was the inspiration for the bonfire group. He told Fordice that he could spend eight hours talking to a licensed therapist, but one hour around a bonfire with his buddies did more than any therapy ever could. As Fordice let him out of the plane, he told Williams that he would be back to get him and he would provide the bonfire.

The project started as soon as Fordice, a combat veteran himself, got back to Vicksburg and organized a deer hunt with six veterans that blossomed into a statewide nonprofit dedicated to building friendships among veterans while providing them with a therapeutic release for the scars that war leaves behind.

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Since that conversation with Williams, Fordice and the Warrior Bonfire Program have organized numerous events for war veterans who have suffered traumatic injuries and experiences in combat. The events are designed to offer a stress-free environment where combat veterans can connect with those who fully understand their circumstances.

“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,” Williams said.

Over the last five years, there have been 56 official bonfire retreats. At each one a bonfire ceremony is held where an American flag is retired and veterans are given the opportunity to retire a red, white and blue stripe in honor of fallen comrades in arms.

The retreats have included fishing, hunting, skiing and even surfing activities for the combat veterans. So far, more than 150 war veterans have experienced Warrior Bonfire Program retreats all over the United States. In October, the first canoeing event was held near Grand Junction, Colorado, on the Gunnison River.

“I didn’t know that I really needed that until I got there,” U.S. Army combat veteran Sgt. Wayne Matthews said. “I’m in a much better place than I was before.”

Matthew’s comment is a typical one for those veterans who attend Warrior Bonfire retreats.

“It’s an incredible experience,” said retired Army veteran Matt 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.

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 the 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.”

For more about the Warrior Bonfire Program, visit warriorbonfireprogram.org.