POULSBO — Joseph Fourbears got a pleasant surprise when he pulled up to the drive-thru at McDonald’s on Bainbridge Island the other day before catching his ferry.
“This girl stuck out her wrist — showed me her bracelet — and said, ‘You gave me this six years ago.’ It really touched me,” he said.
Fourbears, 72, has been an artist most of his life; he and his paintings have been featured at Front Street Gallery for five years. He’s also worked as an illustrator, art director, firefighter, search-and-rescue team captain, safety inspector, bartender, and infantry sergeant in the Vietnam War.
What’s important in life?
“To be nice,” he said. “Kindness means so much today.”
Fourbears began making bracelets and gifting them to strangers nearly eight years ago. So far, he’s gifted more than 700 bracelets as form of kindness — and to remind others to pay it forward.
The bracelets feature beads strung in a colored pattern of green-yellow-red-yellow-green, the colors of the Vietnam Veteran Ribbon Service Flag.
Between each colored segment are one to seven black “spacer” beads for sizing. But they also have a significant meaning.
“The black represents the pain that you’ve experienced there,” Fourbears said. “It’s for men and women who have been through combat.”
Originally, Fourbears reserved the bracelets for warriors who fought in Vietnam, but then expanded it to all veterans. These days, the colored bracelets can be seen on veterans and civilians around the county — if not the country.
“I’ve found everyone loves them,” he said. “We are all warriors in some way and everyone deserves a bracelet.”
The bracelets have been seen on the Brooklyn Bridge, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and on flag poles, on cars and in classrooms.
“People really think highly of them,” Fourbears said. “I started to realize the significance of what they mean to people.”
Struggling with PTSD
Fourbears came up with the bracelets while living in Ojai, California.
“I was struggling with PTSD,” he said. “I walked outside and talked to the spirits of my brothers who died. I asked them, ‘What would like you like for me to be in this life? How can I make you proud?’
“I realized I needed to do something nice for someone — either Mother Earth or a person — each day.”
He served in Vietnam in 1967-68, and was a sergeant when he was 23. As the oldest man in his platoon, “they called me pops,” he said. In one tour, he was wounded three times. He was a paratrooper and infantryman, and completed jumps in the jungles of Vietnam.
But his tattoos on his arms outline the pain from his tour.
Two red stars symbolize the death of his best friends; empty outlines of stars wrap around his forearm, each symbolizing 10 more fallen brothers.
“I loved my men in Vietnam,” he said, as he spoke of one of his late friend, Zanne Hess. “I still cry for my fallen brothers, even now. When I lost them, I lost a part of me. Part of me died along with them.”
Fourbears, of the Omaha Tribe, is also a drum carrier. He recently put his drum to rest while he focuses on his art, but his culture is what’s helped him find his way.
“The first time I was welcomed home was through a pow wow,” he said. “The drum called me. That’s when I realized I had to get back to my Native people to find my way.”
A published poet, Fourbears hopes to share more of his Vietnam War-influenced work in an art exhibit on war and peace later this year. He plans to present a sculpture he’s been perfecting for the past seven years.
“I wondered all my life why I survived Vietnam,” he said. “For decades, I thought that the Creator saved my life for a special reason. Now I know why.”
He added, “It’s those little things you do and say, that’s what’s important.”
Fourbears gave away his last bracelets on Aug. 6, and he is preparing to make more.
Chris Harrelson, a middle-school Latin teacher from Spartanburg, South Carolina, met Fourbears through his sister and brother-in-law, Julie and Bob Bergum.
“Joseph shared his memorial bracelets with my middle school students,” he said. “Before they put them on, we talked about what it means to be a warrior, the bravery and strength of character necessary to push forward when all signs and good sense urge you to go the other way.
“The students were proud to wear their warrior bracelets and use them to remind themselves to be true to themselves, to be strong, and to serve with honor.
“Surviving in middle school is nothing like the battles that Joseph survived in Vietnam, but perhaps some of the courage and strength of character that served him so well there will rub off on my students, allowing them to face their personal battles with fortitude.”
Fourbears hopes recipients might send him a photo of their bracelet’s journey. Email email@example.com.
by Joseph Fourbears
On the wings of the iron bird I am delivered.
into the green it gives birth.
I cry; birth is painful.
I am a child warrior. Can’t vote
or taste the grapes of my land.
Can give my life for the unknown.
I am now wrapped in green, my spirit freed.
Great bird of prey, carrion eater, take me home.
Wings cannot be heard as I’m cradled.
I’m given back, a still birth.
I rest with others; green plastic rows we form,
tagged and labeled.
I am forever a memory, held in the hearts of few,
Take me home.
Bury my body, let me have my wedding,
place my name in stone.
I will not miss my brothers;
I have many here.
The few that live will carry me in memory.
When they die, so will I.
— Sophie Bonomi is a reporter with Kitsap News Group. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.