- by Jack Erwin
A long and winding road led me to the Promise Equestrian center in Maple Park, IL and I mean that both literally and figuratively. Josh met me there, and took my kids and me on the dime tour. I went on a recon to check the place out. He was thin, lanky, wore blue jeans, cowboy boots, a Carhart jacket and had gloves hanging out of his back pocket. The place was under renovation. He had been taking up old linoleum floor tile, knocking out dry wall, cleaning out stalls, caring for the horses- day and night, pretty much every day and every night. You could see it in his eyes. He was no stranger to hard work. His Dad came in a few minutes later. His son was more or less a carbon copy of him. He wore a black cowboy hat and denim jacket, and took the girls and I to go see the horses. He’s an Army Veteran, and was an NCO back in the day. He’s all about taking care of the troops. They have like 80 horses there. No kidding. The place is huge. You can check out their Facebook page, just search for “Promise Equestrian Center.” Enrique rents out one entire wing, his place is called Monte Cristo. He trains Spanish horses- dressage is his specialty. Most other folks are local boarders who rent out stalls for their horses. This place has the only ¾ mile covered track in the Midwest. It used to be an old bull breeding facility. There is now a horse tack store co-located there, Klein’s Tack and Feed, not to mention acres of pasture and trails outside. Needless to say, my daughters loved the horses. There was one who sticks his tongue out so you could play with it- the kids giggled like they were in Disney World when they saw that. I liked the redheaded one; Taco was his name. We seemed to bond almost instantly. Then of course, my favorites were Chevy and Riley. Chevy is a twenty-two hundred pound full Percheran and Riley is an eighteen hundred pound Percheron/Thoroughbred mix. They are built rock solid, like the Incredible Hulk, but gentle and kind as a house cat. Riley would soon become my close friend; that was the point of the whole thing—“Boots and Hooves.”
Within a week, I took off of work to take part in the pilot program of “Boots and Hooves”- an equestrian therapy program for Veterans, Wounded Warriors, and Active Duty/Guard/Reserve service members suffering from PTSD or other injuries. Oh, and did I mention that spouses, caregivers, and significant others can participate as well? Let me tell you NOW, that’s one of the most important aspects of this whole program. I should know- my wife already divorced me; she wasn’t there. So it was too late for a grumpy old Soldier like me to save my marriage, but it’s not too late for you. They limit the number of Warriors to 10, and the spouses and caregivers form a second group. In a nutshell, your days start at 0730 and run into the evening for five days. You start with some barn chores and horse care in the morning. Then there is a period of instruction with the horses, and team building activities. After lunch, there are group sessions for the Warriors with a social worker, and a group session for the spouses and caregivers with a social worker. Then there is time for expressive therapy and art therapy. There is also plenty of time to bond and shoot the breeze with your fellow Veterans. You participate for free, eat for free, and they put you up in a hotel. You just have to provide your own transportation. For the next session, they are working on providing airfare once they find a corporate sponsor.
You are not alone. There are people who care, and you can be a part of it. There are 22 Veteran suicides per day. The IAVA, VFW, AMERICAN LEGION, WOUNDED WARRIORS PROJECT, are “Storming the Hill” in Washington, D.C. to call on Congress and the President to act. But people at “Boots & Hooves” right here in our own back yard are doing something about it. You can check out their Facebook page for more info and some nice pictures, search for “Boots and Hooves.”
Much like my first blog about “The Welcome,” it’s a whole community of people who come together. Matt Ruddick, Gary Kempiak, and Dan Nagel all pooled their funds together to make this happen. A local fire department showed up to paint, clean, and work like madmen to get everything ready for the first day. A local church donated a meal, companionship, and time with a service dog. Local horse owners donated the use of their horses and equipment. Susan and Peggy donated their time to lead and instruct the veterans in horsemanship. Susan served as our social worker, and I should mention that her mom died, but she delayed the funeral so that she could be with us. That says A LOT. Then there is Andre who drove all the way from Michigan to bring his horses so they could be a part of the program, not to mention taking a week off of work to make it all happen, plus put on a jousting demonstration for us. Shannon, an active duty Lieutenant Colonel in the Army Reserve, took a week of leave to volunteer her time and participate. Susan donated the use of her horses. Pam, Sue, Peggy, and many others donated catered food, labor, their talents, and more all just to reach out with a little love and kindness to us Veterans and our families. I will tell you- it humbles you and it makes a world of difference…
Oh wait! There’s more. Massage therapists showed up one evening and gave the Warriors and their caregivers all a ONE HOUR massage, FOR FREE. They were from The Healing Place in Naperville, owned by U.S. Navy Veteran Dr. Leona Di Amore. She and Samantha are both fabulous ladies who really care. She provides both chiropractic care and therapy. Combat veterans are welcome. Check them out. Good luck with the happy ending though…I tried, but failed big time!
Big Army heard what was going on, so they sent out SFC Sauret from a Public Affairs unit to check it out. Like any good NCO, he quickly went about his business, thoroughly interviewing, taking notes, lots of photos, and wrote an article by the next day. Check out his nice work at www.msauret.com. (See “Veterans Corral Horses to take rein of own lives”). He also writes and does photography on his own. He and others like him need to join us at www.lineofadvance.org We could always use a few good men. And women, you know, female types, too. Speaking of, I was surprised by the number of female Warriors who participated. We can’t forget our sisters! Monikka and Larissa really were sisters, one in the Navy and one in the Army. Monikka married a British Soldier she met in Afghanistan, and now he needs to come to Boots and Hooves too. Why not? He’s one of us. Shannon is still serving in the Army Reserve, and Susan was a Navy Corpsman who served in the first Gulf War, and is now retired. Shane, Jeff, and I served in the Army. Jeff was the quiet one. He wasn’t ready to share everything with the group yet, but that’s OK. I was Field Artillery in the Guard, and Shane was a Regular Army infantry sniper. Does the Korengal Valley sound familiar to you? Shane knows it quite well, plus Iraq, plus like umpteen other deployments. He named is newborn son, Blake, after one of his best battle buddies who is no longer with us. I’ve held him in my arms, and loved every minute of it. What a great kid! Shane and I are good friends now. He is a recruiter in Naperville these days, and I’ve been to his house grilling steaks and chugging beers, like battle buddies should. If we ever get in a bar fight, just remember, Shane’s on my team. Sorry about your face. Oh, speaking of Dogfaces, there are the jarheads: Jacob and Obom. Does USMC Infantry appeal to you? Ever heard of a place called Haditha, Iraq? Obom knows it quite well, he did the right thing despite what happened there, and made us all proud. In addition to kicking Iraqi’s asses while shot in the leg a few times, Obom did what good NCOs do and kept fighting, leading, and taking care of his troops. Even after all the bad stuff happened and everything cleared up. He was the platoon daddy. Nothing like coming home a war hero and finding out your wife forgot to be faithful. Sound familiar to anyone? Anyway, Obom is a role model for all of us. He went through all the bad stuff, combat, got shot, lost his wife, recovery from his physical wounds, PTSD, and was even homeless at one point. But it’s about getting back up when you are knocked down. Obom is a happy man now, and is making positive contributions to society every day. He went back to school and earned his Ph.D. He fell in love with and married his caregiver, Ana, owns his own business, and wrote a book. It’s called, The Philosophy of Success: A Journey Through Idioms by Obom Bowen. Check it out; I have an autographed copy. Then there’s Jacob. I was worried about him the most. But I’m not worried anymore thanks to Boots and Hooves. If you’ve fought a war as a Marine Infantryman and held your best friend in your arms when he died, then you can start to know what Jacob knows. If you’ve burned bridges with your family and friends when you got back home, personally know someone called a probation officer, feel like you need to self medicate, and just want to say to hell with everything! Then you know my friend, Jacob. Sound familiar? Well- Jacob has something he didn’t have before- HOPE. Thanks to Boots and Hooves, each of us has HOPE. Oh, and did I mention that he now has a JOB, and a PLACE TO STAY, and a FRESH START? He also has new battle buddies that he knows he can count on, even at 3:00 in the morning. All he has to do is call one of us. WE GOT YOUR BACK, JACOB!
Remember the quiet one, Jeff? Well, he’s from Louisiana, and now we’re Facebook friends. Jeff shared his private stories with his fellow Warriors late at night. One day during the week, he needed a break, he couldn’t sleep, it was just too hard and too painful. You probably already know about the long and painful road to physical recovery, and it’s probably ongoing, just like the road to emotional recovery. But he came back a day later, and finished the course. That lucky Son Of a Biscuit has a wonderful wife, Tracie, who is a nurse, and two beautiful children. Jeff and his family will be coming back for a visit with us. We’re going to have a little reunion of sorts, in September. I can’t wait. We’re going to be there for each other, FOREVER. ‘Cuz that’s how we roll.
For those of you with ADHD and didn’t get it the first time, what follows is a series of Q and A I had recently with reporter Natalie Juns of the Elburn Herald. It kind of sums everything up, you know, like Cliff Notes:
How do you think Boots and Hooves impacts veterans for the better? Do they have a different outlook on life after leaving? Does it help them deal with the trauma or pain they might be experiencing after serving?
Boots and Hooves is an awesome program for combat veterans with PTSD and their families. People are naturally a little fearful of horses at first. But with training and exposure, you have to face your fears. This relates directly to facing your PTSD experiences. However, you are also given an opportunity to bond spiritually and emotionally with the horses, and with each other. Next, you experience team building exercises involving the horses, a series of seemingly impossible obstacles, and also during this time you break the ice with your military brothers and sisters, set aside differences, and do whatever it takes to “accomplish the mission.” Afterwards, you then conduct After Action Reviews to reflect on these situations not just literally, but also symbolically to your real life traumatic experiences and the aftermath of finding a way to heal and keep moving forward. You relate directly to the fear, survival instinct, and trust of the horses, and also with each other. You quickly bond with your “Band of Brothers” again. This is good, because in the afternoons there are group therapy sessions led by a licensed social worker in small groups of no more than 10 classmates. The spouses, caregivers, and family members also have their own group at the same time. That’s when we slowly take turns”facing the dragon” again. Nobody has to share if they don’t want to. But when you are ready, you can share your stories, your wounds, your pain, your triumphs, and funny stories. Sometimes it gets pretty intense and we have to take breaks, other times it’s pretty light and uplifting. We take turns supporting each other, and being supported. These are people look you in the eye and say, “I’ve got your back” and you know they mean it and that you can count on them. There is really only so much we can share with the “civilians.” After a few hours, we transition to art and expressive therapy, to include writing about our experiences. All of it is very therapeutic. The day continues in the evening with something fun and more time with the horses. The next thing you know, your horse is your best friend, and so are your “battle buddies.” So, it’s usually at night when we open up the deepest dark places. It’s usually only with one or two of the others, the one’s you can really relate to. You share the sleeplessness, the hyper-vigilance, the nightmares, the rage, the guilt, the confessions, the self-medicating, the destructive behaviors, the lost relationships, the dead friends, the wounded, the carnage, the face of death, the loaded gun– all of that stuff if you want to or need to– but also the need for unconditional love, respect, and forgiveness. Then there is the gift of knowing you are lucky to still be alive. If you are lucky enough to still have a spouse, then you have a chance to share and grow closer together and focus on each other that week. If you have kids, you can bring them to see the horses and have fun in the evenings or on a weekend. By the time the week is over, you are just floored by the kindness of complete strangers who volunteered, donated, and came out of the woodwork to show their love and appreciation for you. The whole community is there in one way or another, and you feel indebted to those who have paid it forward. You feel hope. You feel like you have another second chance. For me, I felt a renewed faith in God, and a kinship with the spirit of the horses. You wear your dog tag with pride, and you know you can reach out to your “battle buddies” when you need to. You are not alone.
What is your volunteer role at Boots and Hooves?
I’ve reached out to PROJECT WELCOME HOME TROOPS and they’ve agreed to be a resource for the Warriors after the next session from June 23rd-27th to teach the Warriors their research based breathing therapy and yoga techniques to help mitigate the effects of PTSD. In the end, you have learned about new tools you can use anytime and anywhere when you need them. They are graciously doing this for FREE. Also, I’ve started reaching out and looking for sponsors to help with the $4,000 cost to sponsor each Warrior participant. I am personally contacting Veterans I’ve served with and who I know really NEED to be here for this and invite them to participate in the Boots and Hooves program. I plan to perform a support role during each day’s activities, and to participate in the group therapy. Lastly, I share with the other Veterans the healing power of the pen. Some Soldier friends of mine that I served with in Afghanistan have launched a webpage called www.lineofadvance.org Check it out. I write a blog for them and also have submitted some of my own writing. We encourage Veterans to write about their experiences in whatever format they choose, poetry, prose, fiction, song lyrics, art, memoirs, short stories, novels, you name it. We collect these and publish them in a quarterly on-line journal, and also provide assistance to them to become published with the advice and assistance of experts, if they so desire. It is an amazing outlet and window into our lives.
Happy Memorial Day to all of you out there. I’m remembering on of my fallen, SPC Brent Ortega, by marching in the parade in St. Charles, IL on Memorial Day as part of CARRY THE LOAD and with my local VFW Post. It’s a way of personally remembering our fallen and making it more meaningful. Check them out on-line at http://carrytheload.org Who are you carrying?
Lastly, I just ran the TOUGH MUDDER on May 10th with my friends and fellow Veterans from TEAM RED WHITE & BLUE. Here are some pics for those of you who are too chicken to join us. Go ahead, I dare ya! www.teamrwb.org It’s an awesome group aimed at enriching Veterans lives through sports and friendship. Now, either go pound sand or move out and draw fire! I’m busy! PEACE OUT.
Team Red White and Blue at the Tough Mudder 2014 Chicago. Mike & Blake, Brennan, Nicole, Justin, Jack and Marty. We raised $1,375.00 for the Wounded Warrior Project, mostly due to Marty, Mike, and Blake. Thank you to Jason Dorsey for the awesome pics! and Zack Armstrong for the awesome support. May 10, 2014.
Anybody got a Fat Tire? Gettin’ kinda thirsty over here!
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