Blue Skies "Warrior Weekend to Remember"
The Blue Skies for Good Guys and Gals "Warrior Weekend to Remember" is for Purple Heart and Gold Star families. The Foundation's mission is to honor our nation’s veterans, wounded warriors and the families of fallen heroes by providing enriching, life changing experiences that facilitate new friendships and emotional healing.
I was invited to cover one phase which was the bow fishing at Caesars Creek Lake. I soon learned there is a whole lot more to this weekend than a few bow fishing trips. It is a more than just a weekend packed full of events for these special warriors and families which numbered well over 100 this year. It kicks off with the Ambassador group arriving on Wednesday and then the rest of the participants arrive on Thursday. Activities include bow fishing, sky diving at the Middletown airport, range activities at Miamisburg Sportsmen Club plus a private banquet and concert on Friday night. Over two-hundred volunteers make it happen. Area churches not only donate their vehicles for transportation, they also adopt a warrior and pray for them.
David Hart, who is one of the principle organizers, explains, "The whole point of the Weekend to Remember is life enriching where the warriors and their families are around people who understand and love them unconditionally. The activities put a smile on the faces. Most importantly they leave with a whole new network of friends and become a Blue Skies family. They stay in touch with each other. There is no doubt in my mind we've changed and even saved lives. A lot of the veteran suicides that you read about are warriors that isolated themselves and get caught in a downward spiral of depression. Medication and therapy is a help. What they need is a family who care about them and a purpose to live. This weekend does that for many. They become involved in the activities."
The bow fishing event at Caesars Creek was my first introduction to the families attending the program. It was a perfect night to be on the water. Two boats, including one special air boat, provided the bow fishing opportunities. The ODNR issued a special use permit for the air boat to be operated. Additionally, The Ohio Game Protectors Association and Safari Club International sponsored the event and paid for the necessary fishing licenses for the participants. Trent Weaver, ODNR Division of Wildlife Officer assigned to Montgomery County, noted, "This is giving back to those who have already given us so much. The event is well equipped to help get anyone on the water and enjoy the lake. The Division provided fishing license sales support at the hotel. The Ohio Game Protectors Association and Safari Club International are the sponsors who paid for the veteran's fishing licenses. It's great to see volunteer mentors with the equipment and knowledge to host the bow fishing."
Meeting the families and listening to them while on the water quickly made me realize that Hart is correct about the special nature of this program and the warriors who attend. I drove to the Miamisburg Sportsmen Club to observe the range events. Range time was followed by a casual afternoon reception at the hotel. I was graciously invited to attend. This provided a time to interact with more of the warriors and families. Their stories are an amazing testimony to service and sacrifice.
Gold Star wife Morgan Zimmerman was a first-time attendee. She explains, "This is my first year to attend Warrior Weekend. It's the best event I've attended as a Gold Star wife because it brings together both the Gold Star families and our wounded warriors. We can mingle and share our stories. We can talk about our loved ones. We are at a place we have all gone through whether it's the loss of a loved one or the wounds of the battlefield. We have the brothers and sisters here to talk with you understand. We have a lot of fun and get to know one another. We build a network for future support. This is our family." Zimmerman's husband, Staff Sgt. Sonny Zimmerman, of Lima, was killed in action July 16, 2013 serving during Operation Enduring Freedom in Mushaka, Afghanistan.
Gold Star wife Shellie Smith from North Carolina, adds, "It's hard to express. This weekend is so important. Here everyone has credentials. Everyone has experienced the same type of loss. I don't have to explain or defend to my neighbor because they know. You can be who you are. There is no judgment, only support. You also find laughter. This is not about rehashing his death or any details. It's understand and laughing with the people who really get it." Smith's husband, Army 1st Lt. Justin S. Smith died November 7, 2005 during Operation Iraqi Freedom when a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device detonated near his dismounted patrol in Baghdad. Also killed were Staff Sgt. Brian L. Freeman, Spc. Robert C. Pope II, Pfc. Mario A. Reyes. Carol Prazynski of Liberty is a Gold Star mother, "It's been a while for us. We've worked with this organization for four years and it is the most healing place. You can cry, laugh or go through the gambit of emotions. You know you are never judged, only loved. You can do what you want. They open their arms and wrap you in love. That's what this Warrior Weekend is about." Her son, LCPL Taylor Prazynski died from an explosion while conducting combat operations against enemy forces in Al Karmah, Iraq. He was assigned to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, 2nd Marine Division, II Marine Expeditionary Force, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. The Fairfield Ohio native played football, ran track and volunteered to work with the students with multiple disabilities in high school. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The family holds an annual LCPL Taylor Prazynski Memorial 5K Run/Walk/Roll each year. The proceeds benefit The LCPL Taylor B. Prazynski Memorial Scholarship Fund and The Joe Nuxhall Miracle League Fields. The event is November 10 this year. More information can be found online here.
Nick Siewert, Defiance Ohio, put things into perspective as a Purple Heart recipient, "I think we have people from TN, FL and Hawaii plus quite a few Ohio families. This is my third year. The Prazynski's invited me here. I served with their son. I'm back this year as an Ambassador Volunteer. I can tell you that 365 days a year, this is the best weekend of the year. This year there are only a few guys from our unit here. We get to come here, be best friends and talk about where we are in life. We lift each other. Back home I'm a school counselor and high school wrestling coach. I can't be "Nick the veteran" back home. This is my counseling support group. The bonds that have been formed over the last years is so important. We have more support than just what is at home. It is a huge family here."
The boost from one weekend helps carry them through the entire year with the support they need. The next time you see a news report, remember these are real people, Americans, with real sacrifice and heartaches. As we enjoy the freedom and challenges of daily life remember them. Outdoors people are getting ready for a fall hunting experience. These are the families that have given us the freedom to enjoy another year in the great outdoors. My father served in WWII and I have a son serving in the Navy. He's been deployed and he's had shipmates commit suicide. He's told me you can't understand until you've been there. The families I talked to made a significant impact on me. I know, as I am lucky to sit in a deer stand this fall, I'll be thinking and praying more for our troops, all our Gold Star and Purple Heart families with a much greater awareness thanks to those who shared a moment of time and their stories with me. God Bless all of them!
Outdoor writer and hunter education instructor Larry S. Moore is a long-time volunteer leader for Buckeye Firearms Foundation and winner of the 2005 USSA Patriot Award, the 2007 League of Ohio Sportsmen/Ohio Wildlife Federation Hunter Educator of the Year and the 2010 National Wild Turkey Federation/ Women in the Outdoors Hunter Education Instructor of the Year.