We had the good fortune of connecting with Kendra & Brian Ward and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Kendra & Brian, what was your thought process behind starting your own business?
We started 4WARD Project after losing our son, Eric, who was a soldier in the Ohio National Guard. He was born at Fort Hood when both of us were active duty Army. He’d always wanted to join the military, so we thought it was great he’d found a way to do so while also pursuing an aviation career through Bowling Green State University.
On August 22, 2016, Eric took his own life. We were a close family, just the four of us. Of course, we loved each other but we also liked each other. Our family spent a lot of time together – us, Eric, and our daughter, Baylee.
Eric’s loss affected so many more people in ways we hadn’t imagined. So many people came forward to tell us how Eric had impacted their lives in a positive way. Soldiers came to his funeral from all over the country simply to tell us how he had helped them.
Losing a child gives you pain that only one who has experienced it can understand. We know it’ll never go away, but we didn’t want the memory of Eric to be about that pain. Eric’s huge heart guided him to love and care for animals, help people in need, stand up for others being bullied, befriend others regardless of who they are, what they look like or where they come from, and be active in community service.
We wanted to continue his legacy as a way to honor him, and to help us work through our grief, so we started 4WARD Project. It turned into much more than we’d ever imagined.
Can you open up a bit about your work and career? We’re big fans and we’d love for our community to learn more about your work.
We didn’t foresee being involved with anything that we’re doing now. 4WARD Project just kind of happened as we tried to survive after losing Eric. It sometimes was a way to remember him while being a distraction to pass the time and get through the pain. For Kendra, it even helped her deal with anxiety’s physical symptoms by keeping her hands busy.
We decided to call our effort 4WARD Project because:
-Our family was always the 4 of us
-We’re doing this 4 Eric and our love 4 him
-We’re doing this to help ourselves move 4ward after losing him
-We’re doing this to pay 4ward the incredible kindness and support we received from the community in his honor
-Eric used the number 4 on nearly all of his uniforms for the many sports he was in, email addresses and even passwords.
-All of his names have 4 letters – Eric John Ward
After four years of working with a small community of supporters, primarily family and friends, we thought that’s where we’d always be. We had annual fundraisers to raise money for good causes like equine therapy and service dogs for veterans, the local Humane Society, a veteran riding her bicycle across the country to bring awareness to the veteran suicide issue, free, healing outdoor veterans for veterans, and more. But along came TikTok . . .
We made a TikTok account for 4WARD Project on Eric’s birthday in 2020 showing how Kendra still buys an American flag for him every year. He loved American flags as a little kid. Before he discovered light sabers, his favorite “toy” was those little American flags on the wooden sticks. A video showing the flags each year since we lost him connected for a lot of people and within a week or so, we had an audience bigger than all of our other social media we’d had for 4WARD Project for the past few years.
But it was a helmet cam video of Eric meeting up with a local man who was homeless that made things really take off for our 4WARD Project account and efforts. We later found out that Eric had been helping this man and others who were homeless with food, money and getting to know them. The video shows this man obviously recognizing Eric and telling him how he’d gotten a driver’s license and things were going well for him. Eric was just there to support and encourage him as a friend.
As we continued to tell the story of who Eric was, more and more people wanted to support what we were doing. We realized that this was the moment 4WARD Project could help more people, and accomplish one more thing that is very important to us. We don’t want people to think of Eric Ward as that guy who killed himself. We want people to know how he lived.
That’s how our 4WARD rock program took flight. The idea for the rocks came from Kendra’s coworkers, Deb and Jim Linder. They took part in a rock painting and hiding activity that’s popular on Put-in-Bay, a nearby island in Lake Erie. Deb painted a flag rock for Kendra to keep.
Kendra is creative but has artistic skill only in the digital world. That’s how laser engraving rocks with a folded flag and Eric’s name started. We’d leave these rocks in places we’d visit, and friends and family did the same. The rocks are hidden in plain sight so someone else can find them and move them to a new location. The back side has directions encouraging people to make social media photos or videos as they find and re-hide the rocks.
For us, it was a way to share Eric and his kindness with others, and maybe they’d look at our website to learn his story. More importantly, it was to keep him as part of our daily lives because we missed that so much.
We didn’t realize at first that the rocks were also sharing awareness of the military and veteran suicide issue, often known as 22 a day because of a statistic that said 22 military service members or veterans take their own life each day.
We’ve now also made that awareness effort part of our mission as 4WARD Project. The demand for the rocks has grown significantly, so we were no longer able to give them away for free as we had for a few years. The good that came out of that was that people WANT to buy them, and be supportive of sharing Eric’s story and raise awareness.
It feels like we now have a big family out there helping us remember him and help others as he did. Rocks for Eric are all over the United States, and in several other countries. People have hidden them at volcanoes in Costa Rica and Hawaii, at Machu Picchu in Peru, next to Niagara Falls in Canada, in the beautiful landscape in Iceland, and at several military bases and military memorial sites stateside and throughout Europe and the Middle East. We enjoy watching the rocks travel and seeing where people choose to hide them.
Because of all of these people purchasing the rocks, as well as shirts, paracord bracelets, etc. on our website, we’ve been able to donate to several other causes that work toward ending military/veteran suicide by directly helping people. We have regular jobs during the day so what we’re doing is not for profit; it’s only so we can donate as much as possible to these organizations. We are not equipped to help people emotionally because we’re still too deep in our grief, so we want to qualified organizations that have the expertise to do that. It’s rewarding to know that so many people are supporting us, and making it possible for us to support incredible organizations that are making a difference.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
We just went on an amazing trip to Lake Powell, Arizona with Waypoint Vets. It was the trip of a lifetime so it top of mind for us right now-we’d love to go back!
Waypoint Vets was started by our friend, Sarah Lee, a combat veteran who rode her bicycle across the country a few years ago. Sarah was our friend, and also knew Eric since he was young. She was also struggling with suicidal thoughts at the time Eric took his own life. She decided she needed to do something about it.
Being in nature always helped her mental health, so she bought a bicycle, trained for a few weeks, and set off on her trip. Along the way, she decided what to do with her life: help other veterans who are struggling with their mental health by taking them on outdoor adventures, all at no cost to the veteran.
She dedicated her ride to Eric and two friends she’d lost while overseas. Her journey was well-publicized and she always made sure to include Eric every time. That has meant the world to us.
The canyoneering trip at Lake Powell challenged us physically and fostered steps forward toward mental healing. We took a 40 minute speedboat ride to our base of operations, which was a houseboat, the use of which was donated by Dr. Jeff Smith.
On the first day, we did a trial climb and 140 foot rappel. The second day, we did a much harder climb for about three hours and did a series of rappels, which took about two hours, to descend back to the water where our boat was waiting. The third day, we did a steeper climb and the corresponding series of rappels were very complicated. The whole canyon took us about eight hours to finish. Our amazing, experienced guides Jonathan, Richard and Joe helped the entire group make it safely and encouraged us the whole way.
We thought about Eric a lot during that trip especially while out in the beautiful landscape but he’s always on our minds. We and our daughter, Baylee, also wear one of his dog tags every day to keep him close. We all also have extensive tattoos dedicated to him – kind of a trading pain for pain thing.
Of course, we left a rock for him at the end of our trip. We also gave rocks to every person on the trip which included all of the veterans, the houseboat owner and his family, two support volunteers and our guest Scott D. Henry, who is a very well-known TikTok creator and winner of CBS’ Tough As Nails. Scott is another friend of ours via TikTok, and he attended two days of the trip with us to experience it all with the veterans and to share his support.
The camaraderie with the other veterans was amazing. We worked together to all summit the huge climbs and rappel down together, and even save our houseboat after the lines holding it to the rock snapped while we were around the campfire.
These trips can help save lives and we are so honored to have been part of one. We will continue to work hard to raise funds as 4WARD Project for Waypoint Vets and other great organizations that are helping so many veterans.
The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
So many have shown their support for what we’re doing. We’ve been able to connect with so many in the military and veteran community. They understand why our mission is so important so they immediately support us. It has been amazing to know they support us and have our back.
The people hiding rocks for Eric are the reason we’ve been able to accomplish so much. They’ve taken photos, made videos and shared Eric’s story on their own social media hundreds of times. Everything they’ve done has meant so much to us. We try to share every one of their posts to thank them and continue spreading awareness of the military/veteran suicide problem.
-Wesley Surface is in the Army and one of the first people (that we didn’t already know) who took our effort to heart. He put a giant 4WARD Project sticker on his truck and told many people about what we were doing. But, it’s amazing how we are all so connected in this world and don’t even realize it much of the time. Later, we learned this firsthand when we all discovered that he was a Drill Instructor of one of Eric’s childhood friends, Doug Hebert.
-Ray Garcia is a veteran who also was one of the first people to repeatedly support our efforts. Besides hiding rocks for Eric, he has made several videos in support and worn Eric’s name while running the Boston Marathon.
-Command Sergeant Major Lawrence Ogle is an incredible leader currently in the Army who always supports what we’re doing with words of encouragement, and, of course hiding rocks for Eric.
-Jon Stacy is a veteran and NASCAR official who has hidden rocks for Eric at several races this year. He also helped a rock ride in a pace car and be featured on a Fox Sports segment.
-Michael Howard is a Marine Corps veteran who strong advocates for veteran mental health as he shares his story on social media. His service dog, Coop, is always with him. Mike has already hidden a few rocks for Eric and is always there to give us his endless support.
-Joe Skeen hid a rock for Eric while he was in the Army at Fort Hood, and posted it on his very popular social media which spurred a rush of rock orders that allowed us to donate $2000 across four different non-profits that help veterans. Soldiers across Fort Hood moved that rock 23 times on base to honor him. Joe and every soldier took care of that rock with respect. There are words to explain how much they impacted us with what they did.
-Bobby Henline is a well-known Army veteran who survived an IED attack and is now an inspirational speaker and comedian. Despite being very involved in his own efforts to help veterans through Forging Forward Foundation, he has already hidden two rocks and shared it with his extensive social media community.
-Tony Burns is a Marine Corps veteran who asked us for permission to put a large 4WARD Project decal on his race truck. Of course, the answer was yes!
-We also want people to know what a nice person that Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray is. We met him through TikTok after telling him that he was one of Eric’s story that he was one favorite singers. Mark has been nothing but pure kindness by sending us the most supportive messages and allowing us to send him rocks that he’ll be hiding for Eric. He’s promised the locations will be awesome, so we can’t wait to see them!
We are lucky to call these people our friends, but they’re just the beginning. There are so many more people that have taken time out of their day to hide a rock, comment something thoughtful or be kind on our social media, or just be supportive to let us know that we’re doing the right thing and making a difference. Like we said, we want people to know how Eric lived and continue his kindess. They’re helping us do just that.