More than 1,500 combat veterans and Gold Star families have reconnected at reunions funded and organized by the Warrior Reunion Foundation (WRF) in the past four years, and up to 1,000 more will reunite in 2022.
Founded in 2017 by Marine combat veterans James Ferguson and Drew St. Cyr, WRF “supports combat veterans in overcoming the challenges of post-military transition by reconnecting those who served together overseas” through reunions that build camaraderie and community.
“One of the most dangerous things you can do is to isolate people,” said Bart Cole, executive director of WRF and a Marine combat veteran.
Cole says service members who return from combat often put emotional distance between themselves and a deployment. They frequently retreat into small pockets of isolation from others who served, trying to individually reconcile the disparity of life in combat versus life at home.
“Speaking from my own experience, combat veterans were relied upon in an intense way,” explained Cole. “There was love, communication, transparency and honesty you don’t get in the civilian world.”
Sometimes this change in expectations leads to tragedy. VA’s 2020 National Veteran Suicide Prevention Annual Report reported 17.6 veteran suicides per day in 2018.
WRF reunions are community events designed to counter feelings of isolation. A unit’s planning team works with the organization to create meaningful activities that meet the needs of their group, to leave them feeling reconnected.
“We pull [veterans] and Gold Star families together to rebuild their small community. It’s like a large family,” said Cole. “It’s a chance to sit around fires and be transparent and open. They laugh, bury old hatchets, let it go. It’s good medicine. After these reunions, it feels like a weight has been lifted. There are better relationships. They see that they were cared about all along. And they leave knowing they can be in each other’s lives.”
WRF emphasizes the importance of including Gold Star families in the event and planning process. There’s a bond between the families and those who served with the fallen, built through letters to and from home and shared care packages during deployment.
“Just because that person is removed — by death in combat or suicide, or in another deployment — that love is still there,” said Cole.
He says that frequently these reunions offer a chance for Gold Star families to open up the narrative surrounding their fallen loved ones. Parents, widows and children have the opportunity to hear from their command staff and peers to learn more of the story.
Most reunions by WRF are at the company level, hosting 120-200 attendees. Past reunions have been held in Montana, Indiana, Maryland, Tennessee, Alabama and Texas. WRF arranges for food, events and lodging, covering costs of everything on site. Applications for reunions in 2023 are currently being accepted online at www.warriorreunionfoundation.org/get-started.
“Maybe there’s someone you don’t know is a vet who you’ll reach,” said Cole.
As a nonprofit, WRF relies on donations and fundraising to support its operations. It hosts bi-annual group hikes to raise funds for reunions. You can learn more and see other ways to donate here: www.warriorreunionfoundation.org/donate-online.