Military reunions are more than just re-living old times — they also are a chance to gather needed strength from each other
Despite all the resources now available to our veterans, we were missing the one thing we needed most: each other.
By James Ferguson
Best Defense guest columnist
In communities across America, our veterans are returning home from the “long war” in search of their next mission in life after service. But for many warriors the most difficult battle will be fought after our return. Separated from those who have shared our experience and who understand the challenges we face, a sense of isolation can quickly lead to disengagement and doubt.
After leading a group of Marines into combat in Afghanistan in 2010, I returned home to an identity crisis. The pinnacle of any Marine’s career is to fight alongside other Marines. Okay, been there, done that — now what? Several years of searching for the answer and countless late night phone calls with brothers-in-arms who were experiencing the same struggle led me to believe that despite all the resources now available to our veterans, we were missing the one thing we needed most: each other. We had to reunite to find our next mission together.
With over 80 veterans, two Gold Star families, and a group of supporters from a small Long Island community who hosted our event, our unit reunion was a life-changing experience. Members of the unit traveled from all over the country to a farm in the town of Southold, New York, and spent Memorial Day weekend reconnecting, remembering, and recovering together. We used a back-to-basics approach — modeling the event off of a typical unit field exercise: cots and tents, bonfires and beanbags, and a healthy dose of celebration and camaraderie.
We also incorporated support from a host of organizations who provided information and education about the challenges of transition and reintegration, connecting members of the unit with actionable resources to support their personal transition. Most importantly, we had the opportunity to face our challenges together.
Unlike the many late night phone calls that were filled with frustration and fear, I found myself surrounded by strong, passionate, and hopeful young men who realized that life’s greatest chapter was not yet behind them. We were not defeated, we were not broken. We just needed each other to get through this fight like all others in our past. We left with a renewed sense of connection and purpose, and the impact of that weekend changed the course of my life.
The profound realization that reconnecting our veterans at the small unit level could be an answer to the unique challenges of transition. They also challenge the false narrative of the “broken veteran” that dominates our national conversation. This led to the development of an organization that is devoted to providing reunion events for any unit that deployed to a combat theater. The Warrior Reunion Foundation’s mission is to provide our veterans the opportunity to access the most important resource needed to support their recovery: their unit family. It is time for our warriors to come together to celebrate their past, remember those they lost, and set a course for success in life after service.
We stand ready to support any unit seeking to reconnect and rebuild the peer support network that can help ensure our greatest struggles become our finest hours. Communities across America are capable of supporting these events to put action behind the words “thank you for your service.” Our veterans need each other, and now more than ever, our nation needs them. Learn more about our mission at www.warriorreunionfoundation.org
James Ferguson served as an active-duty Marine officer from 2007 to 2013, deploying to Afghanistan’s Kajaki district in the spring of 2010. A healthcare executive who is focused on supporting underserved communities, he launched the Warrior Reunion Foundation in order to provide unparalleled reunion experiences to units deployed to combat together. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: James Ferguson