Ex-Marines raise awareness for vets

By DEMETRIUS THOMPSON,

Two ex U.S. Marines travelled through Newton on Tuesday on a 5-day, 155-mile trip to raise funding and awareness for military veterans struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Vicksburg native Jason Bailess and Austin, Texas native Gabriel Vasquez made the “ruck” (the military term for a hike) on foot from the Alabama state line to the Mississippi River, starting on Monday, Oct. 16 and finishing on Friday, Oct. 20.

The ruck was the latest event by the Warrior Bonfire Program, a Mississippi-based organization formed in 2012 to help Purple Heart recipients recover and heal from PTSD by taking them on activities with fellow veterans.

The program was started by Dan Fordice, a 13-year U.S. Army and Mississippi National Guard veteran, who, a few years ago, met Retired Sgt. 1st Class Charles Gregory Williams who had been injured in combat.

Williams told Fordice that he could spend a full day with a PhD certified counselor and not come close to the therapeutic value of sitting around a bonfire with five or six guys who were there.

That gave Fordice the idea to organize a small event with family and friends on the sandbar bank of the Mississippi River, with dinner, music and a bonfire on the eve of Dec. 29, thus beginning the Warrior Bonfire Program.

Bailess spent six years in the Marine Corps and served in the 1st Light Armed Reconnaissance Battalion during Operation Desert Storm. After returning to Vicksburg in 1995, Bailess got into law enforcement and is now an investigator for the Warren County Sheriff’s Department. He kept in touch with many of his former veterans and got involved with the Warrior Bonfire Program around two years ago.

“They’re based out of Clinton so it was just an easy foundation for me to get involved with because it was so close to home,” Bailess said. “What Warrior Bonfire does is they work with Purple Heart veterans and they’ll get recommendations through the veteran himself or their families. They’ll schedule four or five trips during the year and they’ll get a group of four or five veterans and they’ll take them hunting, fishing, camping, white-water rafting, kayaking; just some kind of activity to where these guys who are all going through the same thing can get together.”

Vasquez served in the Marine Corps for eight years and did two enlistments in Iraq and Afghanistan in the 1st Tank Battalion. Vasquez said his own experience and recovery from PTSD inspired him to dedicate himself to raising money and awareness on the behalf of other veterans, mostly through the Semper Fi Fund, which provides immediate financial assistance and lifetime support to post-9/11 combat wounded, critically ill and severely injured members of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces and their families.

“I lot of my buddies suffer from it. I got deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan, and Afghanistan wasn’t nice for a lot of us. So that’s what got me into this,” Vasquez said. “I came back with it. I’m fine now, but I knew what the recovery process was like, and I know there’s other veterans out there that need help. So basically, I just devoted myself just to raising funds and awareness for Marines and other service members.”

Vasquez has raised nearly $24,000 for veterans, and first met Bailess two years ago while he and another veteran stopped in Vicksburg on a fundraising kayaking trip down the Mississippi River. The two have kept in touch ever since and Vasquez said that when the opportunity arrived to do the ruck with Bailess this month, he couldn’t pass it up.

“Even in law enforcement, law enforcement officers suffer from PTSD too so I see it pretty regularly through fellow Marines and soldiers,” Bailess said. “They’ve been through everything together, especially those guys who are suffering with PTSD and there’s really no cure for it, but what does help is comradery with other people and a good support system.”

The duo was helped by the cooler temperatures last week but completing the trip in 5-day days required doing 30-35 mile days. Bailess said they got a lot of help along the way.

“We were fortunate to have corporate sponsorships, and we’ve had some good people feeding us and putting us up in hotels in the evening and that’s made it a lot easier for the recovery time,” Bailess said.

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