Airplane hangars can be ominous to veterans; mainly due to the fact that many of us fly out of one into unfriendly locations throughout the world or spend a lot of time in them, waiting. This particular one, however, just happens to be a museum…
I sat down on a chair inside the hangar as the sun went down, preparing for a flight to North Carolina. The war memorabilia covering the walls and placed throughout the building made me feel at home. It was full of things, but didn’t make the area feel too blankly dull or just merely purpose driven. There was a story behind each piece, and the whole place had a friendly air to it… as I sat there in the dim light wondering about the various objects surrounding me, I couldn’t help but think to myself of what was yet to come…
I was asked to attend an outdoor excursion with the Warrior Bonfire Program in the summer of 2015 as a fill-in for a position normally held by someone who was a recipient of the Purple Heart. I am no such recipient, but it was an honor to be asked to go. After debating over it, I decided to attend, but I was worried about how others on the trip would view me, which is why I debated on going in the first place.
This was to be a sort of “therapy for veterans via an outdoor excursion” type of event. Group therapy generally has a stigma of sorts associated with it, and many veterans absolutely loath the idea of sitting in a clinical environment with other veterans. It may be the councilor’s observation that causes a disturbance within them or the ever-present issue of having a possible fake within the group. After all, it only takes one phony to leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. Stolen valor cases are on the rise these days, and so too are increasing numbers of VA claims for trauma by those that have no real injuries or issues… So why have group therapy anyway?
The clinical atmosphere is a fairly recent idea in the world of medicine. It began with J. L. Moreno in the form of the “sociometric movement” in 1905 (Toeman, 255) when Moreno used theater as an avenue for personal expression, and technology grounded in the arts, to apply the practice. Since then, group therapy has been utilized by many influential doctors due to the problem of patients withholding information when being questioned by a physician in a one-on-one environment. We know today that group therapy has the potential to be extremely effective, but not many like the idea for various reasons, and personally, like many other veterans, I’m no fan of a clinical environment. So a few organizations have taken the clinical environment part completely out of the equation, opting instead to place participants in more comfortable surroundings. Perhaps this may be one of the primary reasons why organizations like the Warrior Bonfire Program or so groundbreaking.
After a short while, my ride finally arrived at the hangar I had been sitting in and admiring, and I met the founder of the WBP, Dan Fordice. Turns out, he is former military and a present day pilot, and he actually flew us to North Carolina in an antique passenger plane (a Beech 18), courtesy of the Southern Heritage Air Foundation. Not many people know that I am a huge fan of old planes, so just this part of the trip in itself was amazing. I met the first Purple Heart recipient of many who were to join us on that flight. He showed me a magazine that is made exclusively for Purple Heart recipients. I had no idea they had organizations, publications, and support like they did. This was a nice publication and the Military Order of the Purple Heart, an organization I was not familiar with until this moment, was no joke. That feeling that I was in the wrong place, the one I mentioned earlier, started to get a lot stronger.
After picking up one more passenger in the south, we turned north and landed in Ashville, NC with a plan to link up with other veterans and supporters before heading to camp. We sat down at a nice restaurant and three guys from Florida arrived. This was an interesting group. They were all active members of their local Military Order of the Purple Heart, and their ring leader was an eccentric fellow to say the least. He had no filter and could fill a room with his presence just by saying a word. I liked him immediately.
As I met them, shaking hands and giving names, I still didn’t exactly know how to approach the topic of my lack of combat equivalence. That night at camp, I talked to the Florida trio and explained my situation. I thought they would have something to say or maybe even shun me, because that can be how warrior culture acts in situations like this, but they didn’t. They asked me where I had been deployed and branch of service; the same questions many combat veterans always ask in meeting. I told them, and they accepted me with no issue. It surprised me. The reason being because we always want to reduce the gravity of things we have achieved, but there is nothing wrong with being proud. It’s when a veteran is a braggart that causes issues. There is a distinctive line between a cool war story and one that pushes believability. As we realized we had served in a lot of the same places, normalcy set in. It is also fair to note that not all wounds are visible, as mine are not (I have a lung disease from service). And like that, the next few days went well.
I had never been rafting in the mountains, but we had a blast. We stuck together and helped each other out. Food was cooked at the camp and duties were shared to keep the place clean. Dan made sure order was preserved. He looked over this wild bunch and kept everything on task. They told stories about war and hard times dealing with the VA, that we all had strong feelings about. A curve ball to the trip was that there were civilians in with the veterans. It was a sort of mixing of two groups for the same cause, which worked out really well.
Each group learned from the other and came to better appreciate their purpose. An offset group is needed at times for comparison. The civilians were made up of a varying age range of men that told hunting stories and gave a reality check to the time frame. It took away the often burdening military mentality to the great outdoors. This was one more element that removed the clinical/structural background that group therapy leans toward. The military is structure in all sense of the word, but when a warrior needs to adjust to civilians, meeting on common ground is an excellent opportunity.
On the last day, most of the veterans took to one raft, dubbed “U.S.S. Broke” to show our humor towards injuries. We started with individual “duckies” on a previous river, but cold water and fatigue changed minds on the last outing. Most of the injuries are lower body, so the bigger raft turned into a well-oiled machine that could outpace any other raft entering that water that day. We tried to prepare the raft guide for the crude humor ahead, but nothing can prepare a college kid for the things that come out of combat veterans’ mouths when they get pumped up. He may have aged 10 years that day.
I won’t divulge the secret ingredient to how the Warrior Bonfire Program impacts therapy, but I will say they have a process, and it works. You come to a significant realization that there are others out there that have similar stories, similar injuries, and similar traumas that can’t be wrangled together in an ordinary group therapy session. One of the main reasons veterans stay away from group therapy, as I have stated, is because of either the environment, or the fakers, cheats, and that ever-present 10% that slides into things, or both. The Warrior Bonfire Program is for Purple Heart recipients – which greatly reduces, if not negates, a need to verify an individual – and they remove the clinical environment completely from the picture. This allows them to have a more laid back atmosphere that may not be achievable in other venues. To top it off, the vetting process is a key component in allowing the individuals to feel welcome and among their peers.
You have to have a Purple Heart in order to participate, which brings me back to how I felt about not belonging. The group leader for the Florida trio told me, “Guys with Purple Hearts are like unicorns, and you are like a jackalope” (hinting at two mythical beasts with different levels of rarity, one is more elegant and rare than the other). It made sense, and I appreciated those words. That elegance comes from being shot or blown up, so I’m fine with being a lesser-known mythical beast, but it was comforting to know I was still thought of as belonging in the same category. That sense of belonging is exactly what makes the whole process work.
Group therapy removed from the clinical environment might be far more successful as a treatment as it has the ability to create art in the form of human bonding, and it is in the form of art that we might find a reason for such success. One only needs to look at ancient plays to understand how and why this might be possible. Greek tragedies, Roman events, ancient Japanese dramas, storytelling, and cultural arts provide a long history of how humanity has used art and bonding to transfer information. Bryan Doerries wrote The Theater of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today about usage and translation as I have written about Shakespeare in the past as well. It isn’t just about retaining history.
There is a real connection that can be made, and art and acting can be therapeutic as they create bonds through storytelling and sharing. Even combat veterans in England have taken to acting, and studies in Australia have utilized song writing to assist patience with psychosis, though it is new in the clinical sense. (Morgan & Bartrop, 508) Music in this venue was not directly veteran related, but we can utilize the practice by examining the common ground: Psychosis with paranoia vs PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) with anxiety. That isn’t me saying anxiety is paranoia, but they have similar attributes stemming from fear.
How do we apply art as therapy? Many people don’t know that the VA has an annual creative arts festival for each state and at a national level. There are many ways to apply art: painting, theater, music, writing, woodworking and so on; but a newer trend is to gather individuals of like interests and backgrounds for an outing-type of event(s). This allows the group to bond and create new memories without a physician lording over them. They can go fishing, hunting, surfing, skiing, or any number of activities that interests the group. You may say that isn’t art, but it is in the team effort where we may find art created.
In retrospect, I met some great guys that I can’t say enough about, and I’m glad they let me hang out with them and made me feel welcome. The Warrior Bonfire Program does an outstanding job that could easily be a logistical nightmare, so all of those that contribute their time to the cause are to be commended. I can honestly say I don’t know a nicer bunch of folks capable of doing what they do.
What can we take away from events like these and the organizations what hold them? My experience taught me group therapy can be successful if applied in the right way. For us, it was all about veterans interacting and sharing stories with others, which even included “mythological animals” as references to a sense of camaraderie and belonging, far removed from the settings we loath so much. Though the wars change and the injuries vary, the premise stays the same. It is a sharing of information, of time, of pain, and of hope that allows for real connections and recovery to take root. What goes unseen is the continuation of warrior bonds that are as ancient as humanity itself. These bonds must be renewed and never forgotten. They fall in line with the formidable traditions of each branch of service. Traditions are what root us to our past, which are often scrutinized, but are paramount in the long run.
As George Santayana penned in Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Critical Thinking Exercise:
Have you ever felt the need for an opportunity to get things off your chest, to blow off some steam, to be surrounded by others with similar experiences, or perhaps an admission that maybe therapy might be of help to you? For many veterans, it’s the setting, the environment, the atmosphere, the location, and indeed the very people that surround them that makes them feel at ease or not when it comes to bonding and the sharing of personal thoughts.
Consider the narrative above, then let us know if you’ve ever had – or considered – a similar experience yourself. Anything from spending time with good friends, to an actual program will do. Was it helpful? If so, what was it about your experience that you found positive? Be specific. Was it not helpful? If so, in what ways do you think it could have been better? Again, be specific. Would you do it again?
Take a few moments to gather your thoughts, then post YOUR thoughts in the Comments Below. Open discussion helps everyone learn and grow.
Morgan, K., & Bartrop, R. (2013). SONGWRITING AND IMPROVISATION IN ACUTE PSYCHIATRY:CLINICAL CONSIDERATIONS. Journal Of Communications Research, 5(4), 507-516.
Toeman, Z. (1949). History of the Sociometric Movement in Headlines. Sociometry, 12(1/3), 255-259. doi:1. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2785391 doi:1
Veteran participants gather around a campfire during a Warrior Bonfire Program event. Photo by J Rawls, Released.