By Maj. Michelle Lunato, 98th Training Division (IET) Public Affairs Officer/
FORT BENNING, Ga. – 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 spread, 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 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 (Initial Entry Training), 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. 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 comradery 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 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.”
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/.