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Leesville Daily Leader - Leesville, LA
  • Brotherly love: Wounded Warriors reach out, share more than bond

  • Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his New York Times best seller "The Tipping Point," describes networking as a rule of three - three individual personalities that grasp within their combined hands a magical power of social force. This triad of attributes, referred to as "the law of the few" incorporates the collective magnetism of maven, connector and salesman.
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  • Author Malcolm Gladwell, in his New York Times best seller "The Tipping Point," describes networking as a rule of three - three individual personalities that grasp within their combined hands a magical power of social force. This triad of attributes, referred to as "the law of the few" incorporates the collective magnetism of maven, connector and salesman.
    According to Gladwell, social epidemic success expends from the trio's energy - each possessing a "particular and rare set of social gifts." The maven serves as an information powerhouse, collecting and then gratuitously sharing information with others. The connector knows people who know other people and introduces them to one another. Persuading and negotiating are left to the charismatic salesman who happens to know how to pitch and sell an idea.
    An epidemic of healing proportions is exactly what two grassroots groups - the Wounded Warrior Association of East Texas and West Louisiana and the Warrior Bonfire Project of Vicksburg, Miss. - hope to accomplish. These
    organizations join forces repeatedly, providing recreational retreats designed to connect war-wounded veterans and promoting a form of nonclinical brethren-to-brethren therapy.
    Wounded Warrior Association of East Texas and West Louisiana founders retired Sgt. 1st Class Greg "Chuck" Williams of Leesville and retired Master Sgt. Robert "Buck" Collins of Jasper, Texas, met in 2008 at a brain injury clinic as part of their treatment through Project Victory.
    According to its website, Project Victory provides no-cost rehabilitation and combat stress counseling for Operation New Dawn, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom active duty service members and veterans diagnosed with brain injury or post concussive syndrome.
    Both men were stationed at Fort Polk when they suffered traumatic brain injuries; Collins' 2005 injury occurred in Iraq, Williams' in Afghanistan in 2006.
    "We spent about three months in Houston," Collins said. "When I met Chuck he could hardly sit in a chair and look up without falling over."
    As their physical wounds healed, the two men formed a strong bond.
    "We became best friends, went on Wounded Warrior hunts sponsored by other organizations and really benefitted from the camaraderie," Williams said. "We decided to provide the same brotherly therapy in our local area. That's how the association came to be." Together they formed the WWA in 2011.
    In October 2012, Williams served as guest speaker for an air show banquet held in Vicksburg, Miss. The air show was sponsored by the Veteran's Airlift Command, an organization that provides free air transportation for medical and compassionate purposes to post 9/11 combat wounded and their families through a national network of volunteer aircraft owners and pilots.
    VAC's founder, Walt Fricke, flew hundreds of helicopter combat missions during Vietnam and is a Purple Heart recipient. His six-month hospital stay, after being airlifted out of Vietnam in 1968, spurred the vision for his
    Page 2 of 5 - organization.
    "Greg and I met a lot people at the air show," said Williams's wife, Giovanna. "We were honored and humbled to meet people who were touched by Greg's story.
    "Greg explained to the crowd how his convoy came under fire from enemy rocket-propelled grenades eight days after they arrived in country and how an RPG struck an ammunition box and exploded two feet away from his head," she said.
    "Greg got emotional, so I finished his speech for him," Giovanna said. "When we returned to the table one of the guests said, 'we ought to be ashamed of ourselves. We've been sitting here talking about our every day messes and all the while we've been sitting in the company of a hero and didn't even know it.'"
    Giovanna said every person they've met through the WWA has been generous with their time, money and contacts as a means to help Wounded Warriors deal with their battle wounds.
    Veteran Dan Fordice, founder of the Warrior Bonfire Project, also met Williams at the Vicksburg air show. Fordice is a pilot who flew Williams and his wife back to Leesville the following day.
    Williams told Fordice, "I could spend all day long with a Ph.D.-certified counselor, but it wasn't nearly as good as spending an evening around the bonfire with five or six of the guys that have gone through many of the same things I have."
    Fordice told Williams, "We will provide the bonfire." The Warrior Bonfire Association's mission is to provide that bonfire - and the bond that accompanies it.
    "Our organization's inspiration came from Chuck," he said. "I'd been trying to find a way to help in this arena in some capacity, but had trouble linking up with warriors. With him being a Wounded Warrior and a founder of an association, we decided to work together and help each other out."
    The funding for the first two years of the WWA consisted of holding dances at VFW Post 6380 in Jasper. The association also convinced local hunting and fishing clubs to donate their services.
    "After Chuck reached out and talked with Lieutenant Dan (Fordice) - I call him Lt. Dan from 'Forrest Gump' - and we had another connection," Collins said. "Suddenly we're coordinating a hunting trip up to Mississippi which incorporates four Wounded Warriors from West Louisiana and East Texas, two from Mississippi and another two from a different organization. In order to have these trips, you have to have good people willing to volunteer and give."
    Either Collins or Williams accompany each group and acts as facilitator on each trip, ensuring brotherly therapy is available to the combat vets. Participating in the adventure is good fun, said Collins, but the actual
    Page 3 of 5 - therapy is the important part. The WWA doesn't claim to be providing Wounded Warriors with clinical therapy services.
    "We know we have no training whatsoever," Collins said. "But a lot of times, these guys will open up to us more than to anyone else because it's easier."
    Being amongst kindred spirits can make all the difference.
    "It's not like typical psychological visits. So much good can come out of being amid others who have been there and worn those boots - and are currently wearing those boots," said Collins, who believes this approach is some of the best therapy he has received.
    "It's easy to see in the other guys because it's like looking in a mirror - it's easier to see because it's a reflection of yourself," he said.
    Collins and Williams ensure those who are not coping or adjust well, seek help.
    "If a guy is having problems, getting him to the right source to get help, whatever problem he individually is having, is important," Collins said.
    "If that Wounded Warrior is not addressing or identifying his problems, then that's an issue for him," he said.
    Both WWA founders faced the same problem early in their friendship. "When I met Chuck, he insisted there was nothing wrong with him. Finally I got through to him, told him he'd been through a lot and helped him realize there's no shame in admitting he needs assistance - that asking for or receiving help isn't a sign of weakness."
    That's one area these facilitators drive home during the recreational outings.
    "Just by talking, we get guys to realize they do need some professional help," Collins said.
    Wounded Warriors know how fragile life is, according to Collins.
    "You can see it especially in younger soldiers who have lost their immortality," he said. "Wounded Warriors know for a fact they're not bulletproof."
    Not only has Collins lived it; he's seen it, first hand over and over again. "It's something that is emotional - something you can see in their eyes, hear when you talk to them," he said. "And it's something you can't explain
    to a psychologist or a psychiatrist either, when you sit with a group of soldiers who have worn your boots, they all understand."
    For Collins, being an NCO - maintaining the welfare of his soldiers - forever courses through his blood.
    "Through the association, I get to take care of somebody," he said. "That feeling (of responsibility) doesn't go away when you get out of the Army. Most of these Wounded Warriors look fine on the outside, but on the inside they're hurt -not a little, but a lot."
    Knowing these men, who risked life and limb for their country, can receive help with their issues means something very special to Collins. And it means a great deal to know he's played a small part in making it happen.
    Page 4 of 5 - Project Victory provides Wounded Warriors with defined classes on how to take care of yourself, how to take care of your own treatment and be your own best advocate, said Colllins.
    "If you're not looking out for yourself, you can't expect anyone else to," he said.
    Collins hopes to see big rewards from the WWA's work, but has realistic expectations. He knows they can't save every Wounded Warrior.
    "I can only affect what I can affect," he said. "We took 80 guys out on hunting and fishing trips in the last two years. I hope we helped change their lives, but if we only change the life of one of them, it was surely worth it."
    When asked if the effects of being a soldier and facing mortality ever go away, Collins replied, "I know for a fact they don't. All you have to do is watch the History Channel, A&E or the Military Channel. The soldiers that stormed the beach at Normandy are 82 to 86 year-old men and they still tear up.
    "They say, 'I remember it like it was yesterday,' or 'I can hear the screams.' Those memories are so vivid for them and look how long ago it was. I think of myself - it's only been seven years ago for me - I only have 40
    more years of dealing with this.
    "I know it's not going to go away, that trauma is always going to be there. But how we deal with that trauma, how we cope - that's what makes the difference. If we can just talk about it - I've heard the same story a
    million times - 'my daddy was in Vietnam and he'd never talk about the stuff he did as an infantryman.' We, as a nation, took and absorbed that whole generation."
    For Collins, hindsight is 20/20 for someone who's been there, done that.
    "When I look back it's easy for me to see now what I couldn't see then. I had to sit down with my family and say, 'I need help.' And it wasn't day two after I got back from Iraq. People think it's just a switch (that you turn off), and that's just not the case.
    "I'd be absolutely lying if I said I didn't get anything out of participating in the WWA. This work keeps me going, it keeps me with my brothers and with soldiers and I definitely get good therapy out of it myself," said Collins.
    The WWA hopes to make a difference at Fort Polk, said Collins.
    "We want to help the soldiers stationed at Fort Polk who are getting back from deployments hurt and wounded that just haven't got the right kind of therapy yet. I'd like to make a difference and that's our biggest goal - to
    Page 5 of 5 - make a difference in these guys' lives and to let them know that they're not forgotten.
    "We - our nation, the military, the community - haven't forgotten their service and sacrifice. Wounded Warriors - they're blown up, shot up, hurt, emotionally not the same. Some are still active duty; others have separated from the Army. Some haven't been completely treated. We'd like to do our part to help fix that because we've experienced it ourselves."
    Whether maven, connector, salesman or a combination, these three men reach out with experience, heartfelt acceptance and do-good intentions. Helping Wounded Warriors is their goal; they're determined to complete the mission.
    The network forged by this trio - coupled with the ties that bind them together - throw a powerful punch. Their unifying effects have proved fruitful for local war veterans.
    The WWA and the WBP coordinated a six-day all-expenses-paid, Colorado ski trip Feb. 20 for a handful of Wounded Warriors including a Fort Polk soldier (identity withheld for security purposes) and retired Staff Sgt. Nate Brown of Leesville. Both men are Purple Heart recipients - a requirement necessary for participation in either affiliation.
    For more information about the WWA, visit www.facebook.com/WoundedWarriorAssociationLeesvilleLaJasperTx. For information about WBP visit www.warriorbonfireproject.org.

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