LAS CRUCES, N.M. – On a rainy September afternoon, volunteers and consumers gathered together for the second annual Chilies for Willie, a chili roast put on by Willie’s Heroes, a fund raiser for Soldiers, their children and veterans in the parking lot of 88 Grill in Las Cruces, N.M., on Sept. 8.
Willie’s Heroes raised the money for the Wounded Warrior Project, whose mission is “to honor and empower wounded warriors”, Guide On, an organization where children who have been affected by the loss of a military parent are provided with leadership and skills training, and Honor Flight, an organization that transports heroes to Washington, D.C. to visit memorials dedicated to the battles they fought.
Sgt. Maj. William E. Apodaca-Fisk, the executive officer of the Sergeants Major Academy on Fort Bliss, is the name-sake behind Willie’s Heroes, an organization that began during Fisk’s last tour to Afghanistan.
“We teach the infantry soldiers to take care of their feet and they’re sitting there with no socks. All they would ask for was a pair of socks, nothing more than that,” described Fisk. “Then their next question out of their mouth was ‘how’s my buddy?’ There was never a ‘woe is me’. I was very humbled. I was very fortunate last year to be surrounded by heroes every single day.”
From this experience the name Willie’s Heroes was chosen. Fisk’s long-time friends, Wade Mulcock and Nyman Russell were responsible for establishing the organization. The two men were sending care packages filled with beef jerkey, sunflower seeds and baby wipes every Friday during Fisk’s seventh deployment.
Fisk told them he was very grateful, but there were some things his wounded soldiers could use.
“I asked them to send stuff for my wounded soldiers. We had over 1.700 soldiers wounded in action. We had some needs for those guys as they were brought out of the battlefield; socks, underwear, t-shirts, things that we weren’t able to get readily,” recalled Fisk. “The first thing that happens [when you’re wounded] on the battle field is they cut your clothes off. It wasn’t just a need, but a dignity thing.”
Last year while Fisk was home for R & R from Afghanistan, Russell came up with the idea of having a chili roast as a fund raiser. It was a huge success so they planned for it again this year.
Russell and Mulcock asked local Hatch chili farmers to donate chilies, and they were met with an overwhelming amount of support. One and a half tons of chilies were donated for the event this year.
Willie’s Heroes had a huge following in the Las Cruces area, so finding volunteers to help with roasting, bagging and selling the chilies was not a problem. Families came together and enjoyed working together for a good cause. Motorcycle riders packed chilies into bags, a roller derby coach roasted chilies, children rinsed off the chilies, and even Fisk’s mother was on hand to photograph the event. There was something to do for anyone that wanted to help.
Everyone in the parking lot who was part of the chili roast was wet from the rain and covered with black flakes of soot from the roasting chilies, but this could not dampen the mood. They were all wearing their smiles and the soot like a badge of honor.
“The chili roast brings together so many parts of our community,” said Mulcock. “We have a good time planning it all and getting together for something positive.”