By Joe Parrino, Fort Campbell CourierDecember 3, 2008
FORT CAMPBELL, Kentucky, Nov. 25, 2008 --Staff Sgt. Josh Forbess stood out among the Soldiers that packed Hangar 9 for President George W. Bush's rally at Campbell Army Airfield last week. Forbess' service blue uniform was easy to spot against a wall of camouflage. And the burn scars, traces of a helicopter crash Forbess survived in 2003, drew some curious stares.
But what really made Forbess noticeable was all the special attention he got from his commander-in-chief.
As Bush emerged from Air Force One, he waved to Forbess standing with his wife Tori on the tarmac. Later after a speech to redeployed units of the 101st Airborne Division, Bush made his way through the crowd at the airfield to Forbess and embraced him.
The warm gesture recognized Forbess' work for fellow Wounded Warriors. Forbess was recently named a 2008 winner of the Presidential Volunteer Service Award. The award was created in 2004 by Bush's Freedom Corps to single out Americans who made serving a central part of their lives. No higher volunteer honor exists.
Forbess tried to contain his awe during the brief award ceremony.
"It happened so fast," Forbess said.
Bush shook Forbess' hand and asked about his treatment for his burns. The Soldier explained a recent surgery to rebuild his nose. The president then gave Forbess a presidential coin and a Freedom Corps pin while the White House press pool snapped photos.
Minutes later, the Forbesses were in a motorcade ferrying Bush to the hangar. Secret Service agents whisked everyone through the back door, onto the stage and in front of an excited crowd.
Tori said she couldn't stop smiling.
"Josh told me later, 'you were cheesing the whole time,'" she said. "But hey, it was the president."
Bush's speech cited Forbess' work at Fort Campbell's Fisher House. Since it opened in 2006, Forbess has been a fixture at the residential facility that provides free lodging to families of injured Soldiers as they get treatment at Blanchfield Army Community Hospital.
As the liaison between the Soldier and Family Assistance Center and the Warrior Transition Battalion, Forbess often urges Soldiers to open up.
"I tell everybody, 'You don't have to talk to me, but you will eventually have to talk to somebody,'" Forbess said.
This message is reiterated in one-on-one conversations and in weekly group meetings at Fisher House. Many times, Soldiers choose to take Forbess into their confidence because they sense sincerity and an ability to relate.
"I know what it's like to have the walls talk to you and to get woken up three or four times per night to go to the bathroom and take your meds," Forbess says to the Soldiers.
Forbess has done a lot of healing since November 2003. He woke up from an eight-week coma to discover he had severe burns and head trauma, could no longer walk and, worst of all, he was the only member of his team to survive a midair collision of two Blackhawks patrolling over Mosul, Iraq. Forbess felt responsible.
"You take these guys across the ocean to a foreign land. You become their big brother, their mom, their dad. You promise families back here that you will bring them back alive and...you don't," Forbess said.
Even after he became well enough to leave the hospital, Forbess agonized over his lost men. He spent a month trying to drink away the guilt.
At the time of his injury Tori was his fiancAfAe and decided to stick with him during his time of need. Her steadfast love and the influence of other Wounded Warriors kept him from sinking too deep. But Forbess also credits a personal epiphany.
"I got to the point where I said my guys wouldn't want me to live like that," Forbess said.
Each Soldier has his own healing process. But when Forbess gets one-on-one time with a Wounded Warrior at Fisher House or at BACH, he tries to encourage him to rediscover a passion for life.
"We have to get the Soldiers and the families back to what's near and dear to their heart," Forbess said.
Fisher House manager Vivian Wilson, who nominated him for the award, said she has observed Soldiers respond to Forbess' compassion.
"He provides good guidance through a scary medical crisis," Wilson said. "He resonates positive. You can see his terrible injuries and his success in the community. It's something Soldiers and their families can follow."
Forbess also demonstrates a willingness to pitch in at Fisher House wherever a need arises, Wilson said. Forbess has volunteered to speak at fund raising events, to cook gourmet dinners and to ride horses.
When Fisher House began its equine program for guest families, Forbess got involved to help spur interest.
But Forbess' volunteer efforts extend well beyond Fort Campbell. He is a strong supporter of the children's charity Bikers Who Care and the wounded veteran's organization Building Homes for Heroes among other causes. It is not uncommon for Tori, a BACH labor and delivery nurse, to volunteer alongside her husband.
Though praise for these volunteer efforts and perks such as the president's visit have thrilled the Forbesses, Josh insists his motivation is unmoved.
"You don't volunteer trying to get accolades," Forbess said. "The reward is elation whenever you see what your volunteering does for someone."