Who wouldn’t want a free horse or pony ride? Who wouldn’t want free popcorn, crafts, music, or a cool T-shirt, offered in a safe, wholesome environment where families are invited to enjoy a day outside in the company of caring people with a passion for what they do? An early grey morning with high humidity didn’t deter a steady flow of more than 200 volunteers and 40 local business sponsors from arriving early on a Saturday morning to prepare for the day’s events. More than 64 horses rolled onto Wetherby Field at Ft. Benning, GA along with donated food and beverages, and a contagious enthusiasm that set up tables, defined show-rings and horsemanship-demonstration areas, complementing a break-through of sunshine and billowy clouds overseeing the well planned day. The shift in weather and mood, as “boots on the ground” became the 10th Horsemanship by Warrior Outreach, was a metaphor defining the more serious reason behind the event’s purpose.
The grey and distorted realities of the mind, resulting from Post-Traumatic Stress, triggered by sustained, high-alert requirements of war and experiences hard to reconcile with “normal” living, are becoming recognized as serious threats to too many soldiers returning from service. The fall out also adversely effects family members, thus the specialized concern of one Retired Army Command Sergeant Major, Samuel Rhodes, who also suffers from PTSD. He was determined to step out and establish a community of caring people and opportunities for Veterans and their families, hoping to find help and healing from the despair of PTSD. Thus, Warrior Outreach was born in 2008.
Affirming an observation made by world-leader, Winston Churchill—“There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man”— Rhodes set out to prove a point. By combining horses with opportunities to meet, greet, and interact with service-members and their families, Rhodes has been instrumental in demonstrating that new purpose and solace amidst unkind realities, can be a new order. Assisted by his wife, Cathy, and an increasing number of volunteers, “Warrior Outreach” serves the Columbus, GA area of Ft. Benning.
Among volunteers gathered the night before the big event at the Warrior Outreach ranch, Gudrun Dees, a horsemanship trainer from Locust Grove, GA told stories of her fascination with horses since childhood in Germany, as she stroked her new long-haired Dachsund puppy. Lance Hoffman, a 1st Command Financial Advisor, told of the 157 Oak trees, 2 Briar patches, and other foliage clearing projects he’d done alongside Officer Candidate School volunteers, in preparation for horse-fencing and ranch management at Warrior Outreach ranch. An active duty specialist “Steve” with the 1st Battalion 46th Infantry division sat at a table eating with his wife, Lisette, and their two children. He was a four year volunteer with Warrior Outreach, who taught a “Master Resiliency Course” and had started a non-profit “Soldier’s
Family Support” for which he expressed leadership concerns, after he is relocated in the near future. Television personality and former military officer, Gloria Strode, who hosts “Straight Forward”, was introduced as part of the support-group gathering.
When Merle –E’s husband, a Veteran, died a little over a year ago, she found new friends and a home for 5 horses she could no longer keep, alone. Sponsoring her own horse, “Cowboy”, among those who now have a new purpose as part of the Warrior Outreach ranch in Fortson, GA , this colorful and friendly widow finds solace in her visits to the Warrior Outreach complex when traveling away from her home in Auburn, Alabama. Apart from the house where founders Sam and Cathy Rhodes reside, a picnic pavilion, recreational hall, two new playgrounds for children (given by Home Depot), an “in progress” barn, and horse-fencing have all been constructed with donated materials and volunteer-labor over the past decade. One of the workers present, Ben Bennett, knew Rhodes years ago when he served under his command, before becoming a recruiter for the Kentucky National Guard in Greenville, KY. After retirement in 2005, Bennett said he received a call from his former commander telling him to “get down here, I need help.” Ever since, Ben and his wife have been regulars on the frontline of moving the non-profit from its base-camp forward. Late into the night numerous stories were told about how Warrior Outreach had impacted lives within the ranks of volunteers, as well as in the lives of those served.
Finally, Saturday arrived. Trailers transporting all sizes of ponies and horses were guided into the parking area adjacent to Wetherby Field. Leaving room to spare for grooming and tacking, early morning volunteers rolled out the green carpet, preparing for the 400+ guests who would later arrive.
Among the long row of trailers, Championship Quarter-horse owner, Courtney Lummus, showed off her prizewinning belt buckle inscribed with “AQHYA World 3rd Freestyle Reigning” and the name of the horse she was grooming “CN Pokopeanut Delight”. Another young man, Colter Chasteen, sitting erect and perfectly poised on a nearly 17 hand horse named “Blaze”, prepared to demonstrate how his bridle-less horse could perform several maneuvers by imperceptible leg and balance cues. A silent demonstration, as well, of the unspoken connection that can develop between a horse and a person.
Warming up a furry brown mini named “Taco”, behind the trailers, an adolescent boy in a large cowboy hat whose boots hovered only inches above the ground, explained his participation in the day’s event would contribute to community service hours required for high school graduation
Veteran, Andy Young, a papermill mechanical-engineer, whose 2 daughters attend Auburn University, unhooked a wagon from a trailer and began covering the seats so families could enjoy a leisurely stroll around the event grounds. One of his daughter’s horses named “Fancy”, now retired from the show-ring, waited patiently to be hooked up to the harness that would later pull the wagon.
One proud mother, watching two of her daughters perform complex maneuvers and formations as part of the Spaulding & Coweta County 4-H Drill Team exhibition, explained the group had only been riding together for about 6 weeks. Two of the more experienced girls with whistles in their mouths, cued the younger mounts prior to formation changes, never missing a hoof beat, every movement of the team synchronized to popular, Patriotic country-western songs being broadcast over a sound system set up by local radio station 103.7 Lite FM.
The sound of hammering atop folding tables resounded under the pavilion area, as Golden Doughnuts and biscuits with gravy donated by Huddle House FBGA were moved to the side to make way for Home Depot crafts. “Joe”, from Central High School, whose supervisor’s role at one table would earn him credit towards a school requirement, commented that the small nails were a challenge to keep upright, wincing then smiling after hitting his finger with a small hammer. Despite technical difficulties, proud crafters could be seen carrying their newly assembled pencil holders about the grounds as they enjoyed chips, popcorn, water, and sodas provided by local donors: Zaxby’s, Winn Dixie at Veterans Parkway, Carmike, Coco-Cola, and the Red Cross.
Tables with rows of riding helmets were organized at the entrance to the large field reserved for the hundreds of want-to-be-horseback-riders from the smallest of children to the sturdiest of adults. Mounting blocks and “spotters” who led their horses in circles for hours, rotating them out for watering and rest, occupied the afternoon. Miniature-horses and ponies from “Begin Again Farms”, a non-profit based in Hamilton, GA, devoted to the care and rehabilitation of abused and needy horses, set up a small riding ring with safety cones and rope at one end of the grassy area behind the pavilion. Several children stood in line repeated times with their parents to have their first experience riding with their feet reassuringly closer to the ground.
Retired couple “Pat ‘n Jack” Solomon, married 54 years, handed out American flag key chains, “Support our Troops” magnetic ribbons, among other memorabilia as reminders that the USO based out of Washington D.C. has a presence in 160 locations, employing over 600 in an effort to support and encourage troops wherever they might be stationed around the world.
As the afternoon wound down, canopies were broken down and rolled up with poles neatly secured into the back of trucks. Large watering troughs, once full of ice to keep bottled-water and sodas cold, were emptied and carried across the field to trailers. On the far side of Wetherby field near a water spigot, a young teen hosed-off her horse who was decidedly not moving from his place at the cooling station, ignoring sideward glances from two sweat-soaked geldings waiting their turn to slurp down water from the trough nearby. Young service-men in civilian clothing, identified by their erect posture and self-controlled demeanor, led horses one at a time to the refreshment station before it too was emptied and carried off by a pair of volunteers helping to wrap up the afternoon. Last but not least, a young woman and her father could be seen scooping manure into buckets to be carted off as part of a “leave no trace” policy, so Warrior Outreach might be welcomed back for their next event with no reservations.
In his second book, Breaking the Chains of Stigma Associated with Post Traumatic Stress, Retired Command Sergeant Major Sam Rhodes, Sr. points out PTSD has been around ever since there have been wars. It’s been labeled differently in the past — “battle fatigue” or “shell shock”—but the symptoms are the same; and in some cases even results in suicide, if there is no attempt at intervention. In his book, Rhodes points out: 6500 military veterans take their own lives annually—that’s 18 suicides per day. He unapologetically has an opinion on that too: “The ‘hands off’ approach is wrong. Soldiers need soldiers. The first line of effort in saving us from ourselves is each other……Caring for and understanding one another makes all the difference…the best medicine life has to offer is love from family and friends.” (pg. 38)
Perhaps author John Fullick , best summarized it observing horses rescued at Begin Again Farms: “Souls—some sick, some tired, some hurt, some dying. They come here—some limping, some running, some hungry, some stunning. They all search—some for peace, some for friends, some for quiet, some for ends. They all want—love, respect, companionship, safety. They all find it.” And from at least one other observer’s perspective, the same is true of Warrior Outreach and its many volunteers’ efforts to help soldiers returning from war find the love within community that restores a sense of purpose and belonging…..through the eyes and souls of horses, and those who care for them.