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Best Defense Foundation: Creating Closure for Veterans

Army men standing in front of airplane

Veterans can face many challenging issues when transitioning back into a civilian lifestyle. From applying to jobs and re-establishing relationships with family and friends to creating new routines and structure, they need support when facing these unique challenges. But something that veterans don’t often get is the one thing they need the most: closure. And, that’s where Best Defense Foundation steps in.

For almost 15 years, Best Defense Foundation has taken over 200+ veterans back to their battlefields from Normandy to Iwo Jima and everywhere in between. The focus of the Battlefield Return program is to not only bring veterans much needed and rarely sought-after closure, but to also give them a safe space to open up and talk with their brothers and have that sense of camaraderie again. “It’s closure for these guys in a different sense. It’s just the guys who were in the foxhole back together in a different way that brings cleansing and closure. It’s important that they feel safe and you create a safe environment for the healing to start. The magic happens when it feels safe and the environment is inviting them to talk and articulate different feelings and not be in a situation where they’ll be judged. A lot of that is organic,” said Founder and former NLF player Donnie Edwards.

Taking care of the ones who took care of us is the mission of Best Defense Foundation — recognizing, honoring, celebrating and bringing closure to those veterans who gave it all and left it all on the battlefields. With programs such as Battlefield Return, Transition Program and Education Initiative, Best Defense Foundation is giving vets purpose in their life to keep going, keep pushing and keep trying. “I understand the service and sacrifice that’s put forth from our service members for our freedom and for opportunity and I realized that the opportunity I had to change my life in so many different ways, to get educated and to be able to have that opportunity in this country, is on the backs of the men and women that serve and I never forget that. I understand the sacrifice that they give so I wanted to bring some awareness and attention to their service,” explains Edwards.

Photo courtesy of bestdefensefoundation.org

What’s most noteworthy to mention about the Battlefield Return program is how it allows these veterans to let a flood of emotions escape from their inner dams in a safe and cathartic way. It allows these normally very tough, alpha males to get past the emotional wall that they’ve built very high up above their heart to lock away their memories and emotions. A lot of this can be seen in any one of their videos that documents a veteran’s trip back to the battlefield.

One trip that sticks out the most for Edwards was with World War II veteran Tom Rice. Rice, who was Edwards’ former high school teacher, had never been back to the battlefield and with the help of the foundation’s historian and researcher, they were able to find the exact place where Rice was shot by a sniper. “We were talking on the field and then [Rice] wanted to go down into the foxhole. Then, he just started telling stories about what happened, how he got shot, who he was with and how he got back. He’s pulling up his arm sleeve and pant leg to show me the scars of where the sniper hit him 75 years ago. So it was really, really powerful and off camera when we were walking back to the bus, he just stops and looks at me and gives me a big hug and says thank you Donnie, thank you so much for allowing me to come back. These guys are tough guys and it just melts your heart because at the end of the day, I tell myself this is exactly why we do what we do because we’re really making a difference and it’s so powerful and I tell my team that because we just want to make a difference and pay it forward and honor, recognize and celebrate our veterans. It was special. Those moments are special,” explained Edwards.

To some respect, Edwards and his foundation are giving these vets a second chance at life in their later years as many of these men and women have harbored immense feelings of pain and inner turmoil for decades over what happened on the battlefield. On a trip to Normandy, a Catholic-raised vet who joined the service at 17 told a story to his brothers that he had never told before, not to a single soul. “This man got up and said he’s been carrying this weight on his shoulders for 70 years and he finally felt safe that he’s with his brothers that he can talk about this. He talked about the first time he came face to face with a German and it was him or the other guy and he had to shoot him. It’s powerful when you don’t tell people unless you’re there in this circle and understanding; he was sobbing. His brothers grabbed him and hugged him, it was so powerful, they were all comforting him and saying it’s okay. You talk about dropping that weight off your shoulders and having that release and closure. This man is 90-something years old and he was going to go to his grave with that but finally he feels free. Now he’s able to talk and get out and share his experiences. He has to tell his story for himself and for his brothers and sisters who are no longer here. He’s been feeling fantastic since then; he’s really found his purpose now in his twilight years of his life to get himself out there,” remembers Edwards.

Photo courtesy of bestdefensefoundation.org

Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, six Battlefield Return commemorations have been cancelled this year. A trip was planned to Hawaii with 20 WWII Pacific Veterans that were set to travel to commemorate the end of WWII at Pearl Harbor in September. With a chartered flight ready to go and the approval from the Governor, Admiral to the Navy and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, the trip was ultimately cancelled six days out due to an uptick in COVID cases. “When things get cancelled, it just breaks the hearts of the veterans and takes all the air out of the sails for them and that’s not good when you’re 95 or 100 years old. So, it was our duty to call the 20 veterans and tell them, I know you packed a month ago but unpack your bag because it’s not going to happen. That’s really hard,” explains Edwards.

However, with the hope of a better 2021, the foundation is planning to take some Korean war veterans back to Korea, and also take some vets back to Vietnam. The foundation will also continue to move forward with their Transition Program for recently retired special forces. Focusing on first quarter of next year, Edwards and his team are planning to do a program that will involve Special Forces, Navy Seals, Green Berets and NFL players while putting a focus on “that bond and brotherhood together while talking about real stuff that us alpha males don’t like to talk about,” said Edwards.

Although the Battlefield Return programs have not been able to go back to the commemorations, the education part of the foundation’s program has been able to adapt to these technology-focused times and has been hosting school assemblies via Zoom. “Every year we take a veteran to school assemblies for the education part of our program but unfortunately those have been cancelled because there are no schools in sessions, so we’ve been doing Zoom calls instead. It’s a bummer because it’s so important with kids to interact with our veterans and learn. We have a peer to development leadership program that has kids watch videos and talk about their feelings and write it down and all of that has been put on hold, which has been a bummer. Even with our fundraisers; we’re all volunteers just trying to get over that threshold to fund our mission, but we haven’t been able to fundraise this year. Our veterans are the ones that are suffering but hopefully we can all hold tight for now,” said Edwards.

Photo courtesy of bestdefensefoundation.org

While some people may see the word foundation and mistake it for another donation organization, those people will be pleasantly surprised to know that all Best Defense Foundation donations go directly to the veterans. The money does not go towards research but rather goes directly to honoring, recognizing, celebrating and taking care of our veterans. And, with a simple glance at the foundation’s website or YouTube videos, one can see that this foundation is nothing but transparent in how they take care of our veterans. “We are the guardians. We are honoring and making sure of the well-being and mindset is there along with appreciation. It’s a sense of service and our mission is taking care of the ones who took care of us and we really believe that. Just because you’re out of uniform doesn’t mean we forget about you; we never forget, and we always thank them for their service,” explains Edwards.

For more information on Best Defense Foundation and how you can give a veteran the closure they need, please visit bestdefensefoundation.org and watch the video below: