Been busy…


I’ve been a bit silent on my blog lately, but it doesn’t mean I have not been busy. (Actually, I’ve been missing my blog and blogging friends!)

Here is one of the many things I’ve been working on…

Story and photos by Maj. Michelle Lunato 

98th Training Division -Initial Entry Training

Retired Veteran Helps Others Find Peace Through Horses

Life can be full of stress that is unavoidable. From the irritation of dealing with road-raging drivers to the anxiety of coping with Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, it can be a lot to handle.

Of course, stress and PTSD are not always limited to veterans alone. Many family members and civilians can have similar weight on their shoulders. Regardless of the size of the shoulders, sometimes, the weight can just be too much.

But in these situations, people just need a horse to save the day, according to Retired Command Sgt. Maj. Sam Rhodes, owner of Warrior Outreach in Fortson, Ga. After serving 30 consecutive months deployed to Iraq in 2003, Rhodes found it hard to readjust to life back home. He suffered in silence from the impacts of war because he feared the stigma associated with asking for help.

“I was kind of embarrassed. I didn’t want anyone to know I had challenges. So I kind of handled it on my own,” said Rhodes who serves as the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program Manager for The Maneuver Center of Excellence Directorate of Training and Doctrine at Fort Benning.

Through his struggles, Rhodes discovered a path to comfort. “I found that horses were very helpful to me. The dynamic part of that is, being a leader, once you find something that’s going to help you get through the challenges in life, you want to share it with other people.”

So like a good senior noncommissioned officer, Rhodes sprang into action to help others who may be suffering in silence, like he was. In 2008, Rhodes and his wife, Cathy, started the Wounded Warrior Horsemanship Program at Fort Benning. It allowed veterans and their families the chance to interact with horses during special events on post. As time went on, people kept asking us to do more and more though… so eventually, we did, said Rhodes. That is when the Wounded Warrior Horsemanship Program transformed Rhodes country home into the Warrior Outreach Ranch.


“In 2015, we decided to make it bigger and bought 15 acres, built the barn, and now expanded our home as a place for people to come, relax and enjoy life and relieve some of the stress of life.”

Warrior Outreach Ranch, which is a 20-acre ranch, is a sanctuary Rhodes and his wife created for veterans and their families.

“There are so many veterans suffering from challenges in their life – not only from the war, but just everything. So we want this to be a peaceful place for them to come,” said Rhodes.

At the ranch, peace comes in a variety of forms. Veterans can choose to walk a quiet trail, fish in the tranquil pond, hang out in the quaint club house, or Rhodes’ favorite activity – interact with the horses. Whether it’s feeding, grooming or riding the horses, Rhodes finds that his soul is quieted through the contact.

“They say the outside of a horse is good, for the inside of a man.”

Being around an animal that big, makes people focus, and focus is a key to dealing with stress, according to Rhodes. With all the stressors in today’s hectic pace of life, anything can trigger anxiety…if we let it, said the veteran who is a Legion of Merit and Bronze Star awardee.

“We can go into a downward spiral any day, over anything,” said Rhodes. But the retired command sergeant major found his way to refocus through horses over the years. And this form of therapy has worked for other veterans and their families too. That resiliency skill taught Rhodes, and his Warrior Outreach Ranch visitors, how to emphasize the good.

“You have to figure out a way to get a positive in what you are doing, and not focus so much on the negative things in life.”

The Warrior Outreach Ranch helps people do just through daily interaction or special events. Rhodes said the ranch was created for veterans, and he and Cathy tailor their time to what veterans and their families need. So whether veterans need a unit family day, class on resiliency or just time with the family in a quiet place, this retired command sergeant major is ready to help.

In December, over 50 Army Reserve Soldiers from Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (Initial Entry Training), spent the day at the ranch for their official family day. The relaxed family environment was filled with outdoor activities and time with the horses, said Capt. Cheryl Miller, an HHC officer with 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (IET), which is located on Fort Benning.

The local facility offered the Reserve Soldiers with a unique opportunity to unwind, said Sgt. 1st Class Marvin Chestnut, plans and operations noncommissioned officer, HHC, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (IET).

“The Warrior Outreach Ranch put in a lot of hard work for our Soldiers to have a memorable experience, and really took the time to ensure the Soldiers were really enjoying themselves.”

The fact that the unit’s family day was at a fellow veteran’s home just added more to the day, and the unit could not be more thankful to Rhodes and his wife, said 1st Lt. Robert Burch, HHC commander, 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (IET).

“They are absolutely fantastic people and their mission is an honorable and selfless one.”

Creating a ranch doesn’t just happen overnight though. It takes a lot of volunteers to run the nonprofit organization that is available at no cost to veterans. Lance Hoffman, a retired lieutenant colonel who was also diagnosed with PTSD, is one of those volunteers who keeps the ranch running.

Hoffman, who only found out about the ranch through a friend, said he offered to help out for one event, and hasn’t stopped since. That was a few years ago.

“Sam found out I had a chainsaw, and that was all she wrote,” said Hoffman who regularly helps clear brush and trees along the three main hiking and riding trails. “Now I am the proud owner of three chainsaws, two pole saws and several double bit and single bit axes and wedges and everything else.”

The large group of volunteers who keep the ranch running are a mix of veterans and their family members, as well as local citizens who just want to support the military and be around horses. As the volunteers muck stalls, familiarize visitors with the horses and cut trees, they are also building a larger family and stronger community.

“There is just a camaraderie out here,” said Hoffman. The close-knit family is always willing to adopt though, joked Hoffman.

“We need more volunteers. If you gotta chainsaw, come on. I got lots of work for us to do!”

However, not all volunteers need a chainsaw. There are plenty of other ways to help the ranch that range from administrative tasks to handing out equipment to visitors. And when time is not possible to give, others compelled to help can donate everything from hay to food to garden tools.

In full military style, Rhodes does give out one safety warning to all his guests and volunteers though, just so they know what they are getting into to.

“Once you come out here, you’ll fall in love with it and you won’t want to leave.”

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For those interested in scheduling an event at the Warrior Outreach Ranch or volunteering to aid the nonprofit organization, look for more information at http://warrioroutreach.org/.

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Ok, I have to get back to work now! 😘

Talk to you all more later.

Nato

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Laughing to avoid crying


Sometimes I laugh instead of cry. For one thing, it is more uplifting. For another, it energizes, rather than drains. However, sometimes it is really just inappropriate.

I am not alone though. Many of my Army friends have this coping mechanism. I also know quite a few nonmilitary people who do it too though.

I think it started when I was kid. I wanted to be the funny one. I liked when I made people laugh. I was silly. I was the high school class clown. I was labeled as goofy, silly and witty. That was cool with me as I could never compete with the rich, pretty, popular girls. So, I was quite happy being the nice funny girl who got along with all the clicks.

When I deployed, humor was just part of my personality by then. But it added something more in a war zone. It protected me. Not in the literal sense of course, but in a mental way. Comedy became a form of mental resiliency. Random rockets would hit my base in both my Iraq and Afghanistan deployments. Sometimes there were a few a day. Sometimes it was only a few a month. That was the thing though. You. Never. Knew. When. Or. If…. You also worked along side of local nationals at times. Don’t get me wrong, they were lovely people. However, there was always a story that some national on some base somewhere got violent. So you always had that ‘what if’ worry in the back of your head.

Combine that with intense work loads, little free time and lack of your normal daily life and world around you…that adds up to a lot of stress. (And then multiple that times 100 for those Soldiers who actually had much more intense and “outside-the-wire” jobs.) But for many of us, this pressure cooker situation was diffused with comedy.

One time in Afghanistan, some Monday mortars, aka rockets, landed on base and the sirens started wailing. In these situations, some Soldiers jump into action. Others Soldiers get out of the way. Not that we are hiding, but our place/mission is to go to the bunkers. It is essentially like civilian police and fire department workers. When they are needed, the rest of get out of their way. So when the sirens went off, I ran to the closet bunker. As I stood in the concrete bunker with about 15-20 other service members, we all start laughing at the randomness of our uniforms. It was around 4 a.m. after all and when rockets go off, you move. The last thing you are worried about is whether your boots are laced or your shirt is buttoned.

So here we were, a bunch of highly trained Soldiers, looking all unkempt. Hair was loose and messy and on our collars. Some wore a combination of their regular uniform and their fitness uniform. A few guys had no shirts. One service member, did have something very odd though. He had a coffee pot.

As he ran out of his bedroom ‘hut,’ he grabbed his morning joe along with his helmet and weapon. You never know how long an air raid will last, and he was going to be prepared! We all laughed at our appearances and sipped coffee from the pot as we took shelter and waited for the unknown with masked anxiety.

Years later and back in the states… when my mom died, my sisters and I were together for a few days. As we went through our mother’s things, we made jokes. Ok, well, I made a lot of jokes to make them laugh, but they threw in a few here or there too. We’d laugh at all the recipes our mother had printed…and never made that we knew of. We giggled over little memories of her being mad at each of us. We broke in bursts of laughter as we imitated her catch phrases until we had tears in our eyes.

Even at her funeral, I was laughing at things people said to. And sometimes, they were not even all that funny. I just wanted to laugh. I needed to laugh because frankly, I didn’t have the energy to cry. Everyone was stressed and sad and I somewhere became the “strong one.” I did not audition for the position, nor did I want it. Nonetheless, I had it. So there was no time for tears, and I knew that if I started to cry, I may not stop.

“There is a thin line that separates laughter and pain, 

comedy and tragedy, humor and hurt.”

~ Erma Bombeck ~

I have often been accused of being cold and not taking things seriously because of my humor too. I can see how a joke in certain times can be perceived as inappropriate or insensitive. However, if people looked past that, they’d see someone just pushing back the tears and finding a way to cope.

Is that really that wrong? And how many of you do the same?

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For Writer’s Quote Wednesday’s Theme ~ Comedy.

Resilient like a flower


“Keep your face to the sunshine

and you cannot see the shadows.

It’s what the sunflowers do.”

~ Helen Keller~

There is something to be said for resilience. It is the grit that makes us work harder after failing. It is the motivation that gets out of bed after something devastating. And frankly, it is the reason why many of us are still alive today.

Just think about where we would be as a human race if we were not resilient. I really can’t imagine that world. For without resilience, we would not, could not have moved passed so many events in history: slavery, war, genocide, epidemics and economic collapse. Generations of people have endured some horrific experiences.

Yet, the human race is still here. We have learned, or so I like to think, from our history. We have created a better world. We have learned to survive.

One of my mom’s biggest lessons to me and my sisters was to “be a survivor.” As kids we used to run around teasing each other and singing, “Be a survivor. Be a survivor.” We never took it seriously. I look back now and think, Mom may have been onto something there.

When I joined the Army Reserve, I quickly learned the phrases, suck it up and drive on and embrace the suck. I’d laugh and think, man, the Army must have talked to my mom!

Regardless of the source, the message was the same. Shit will happen in life that you cannot control. So, you can either learn to deal with it and move on or you can let it destroy you. That doesn’t mean you look at life like a Polly Anna and pretend the bad does not exist. No, that is just dumb advice. You can’t ignore abuse, racism and crisis. However, you can survive. But you can only do that with resilience. Because without resilience, would you ever get up after being ruthlessly abused? Would you ever want to leave your house after watching a loved one die? Would you ever want fight after a debilitating diagnosis?

I don’t think we could.

My mom survived a lot. Her mother was a mean spirited woman. She was not allowed to go past the 5th grade because she was “too stupid to learn.” (Ironically, those “smart” adults just couldn’t figure out that my “stupid” mom could barely hear out of either of her ears. Yeah, who was stupid in this scenario?) She was blamed for stealing something at a store by a “cool” kid. As a result, she was then sent off to a detention home where she was molested. Then, when she was married off, her then-husband cheated on her and beat her when she confronted him about it. So there she was in a foreign country, a near-deaf girl with a 5th-grade-education trying to figure out how to get divorced and go home.

Fortunately, my mom was resilient, and later met my dad. As a kid, I didn’t know her struggles. And naturally, I thought I knew more about the world than her. (I was a teen after all. Don’t they know EVERYTHING?) However, now, I look back and think, wow. This woman was a survivor, like literally.

According to the Helen Keller quote above, my mom survived by following the sun. She didn’t focus on her shadows, her pain. She didn’t let the dark experiences lead her life. After dealing with them the best she could, she followed the sun, the light of hope and moved toward a future. Like a sunflower, she focused on the light (good).

I will admit, before today, I never realized that sunflowers actually followed the sun throughout the day. I  mean I knew they, like other flowers, grew towards the sun, but I never thought their heads actually moved throughout the day as the sun moved.

So when I was looking for a fun quote to accompany my macro shots of some sunflowers in my yard, I found more than I planned. I found some quotes, some facts and some inspiration. (So thanks Sally for hosting this challenge!)

The Army found this inspiration a number of years ago too. The embrace the suck phrase has been replaced with a lot of talk about resilience. It is more acceptable to seek help/counseling now than when I joined 15 years ago. As a matter of fact, the old stereotypes are fading away. Asking for help or taking a break is no longer a sign of weakness. As a matter of fact, taking a knee is a good sign of leadership. It shows that a leader is self aware enough to realize they need help or a break. It shows that a leader can recognize the signs of the stress in their Soldiers if they can see it in themselves.

That makes sense and is certainly more realistic than just ignoring all the bad. The Army even teaches us resiliency classes now. They instruct us on various techniques to be grateful, find happiness and endure the bad. Essentially, they teach us to survive the bad and find hope in a better tomorrow.

And according to Helen Mirren, following the good/light/hope is a wonderful life lesson.

“I don’t think there’s anything on this planet that more trumpets life that the sunflower. For me that’s because of the reason behind its name. Not because it looks like the sun but because it follows the sun. During the course of the day, the head tracks the journey of the sun across the sky. A satellite dish for sunshine. Wherever light is, no matter how weak, these flowers will find it. And that’s such an admirable thing. And such a lesson in life.”

~Helen Mirren~

And I when I put all this information together it makes me laugh a little, and even a little more resilient. Because, now when I look at sunflowers, I will forever think of my mom, Soldiers and hope.

Forever, I will think: I am a Soldier. I am survivor. I am a sunflower. I am all three at once, and no matter what, I will focus on the sun (and Son).

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For Sally D’s Mobile Photography Challenge ~ Macro.

 

There was a time


There were times in my life where I wanted to die. Funny thing was that these times didn’t come to me when I was deployed to foreign countries where stray mortars could have landed near me at any moment. No, they came when I was in the safety of my own country, surrounded by people I love……

 

To read more, please go to the post I wrote for the Seeker’s Dungeon.

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I turned off comments for this post as it was written especially for Sreejit Poole’s blog. Please visit his always inspiring blog. It is filled with countless thought provoking pieces.