FORT BENNING, Ga., March 20, 2017 —
Life can be full of stress that is unavoidable. Anything from the irritation of dealing with road-raging drivers to the anxiety of coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, 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, and sometimes the weight can just be too much.
But in these situations, people just need a horse to save the day, said retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Sam Rhodes, owner of Warrior Outreach in Fortson, Ga. After serving 30 consecutive months in Iraq in 2003, Rhodes said, he found it hard to readjust to life back home and suffered in silence 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, the Comprehensive Soldier and Family Fitness Program manager for The Maneuver Center of Excellence training and doctrine directorate here.
“I found that horses were very helpful to me,” he added. “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.”
In 2008, Rhodes and his wife, Cathy, started the Wounded Warrior Horsemanship Program here. It allowed veterans and their families the chance to interact with horses during special events on post. As time went on, Rhodes said, people kept asking more, so the program transformed the 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,” Rhodes said.
The Warrior Outreach Ranch is a 20-acre sanctuary for veterans and their families. “There are so many veterans suffering from challenges in their life -- not only from the war, but just everything,” Rhodes said, “so we want this to be a peaceful place for them to come.”
Variety of Options
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 clubhouse or interact with the horses. Whether it’s feeding, grooming or riding the horses, Rhodes said, he finds that his soul is quieted through the contact.
“They say the outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man,” he added.
Being around an animal that big makes people focus, and focus is a key to dealing with stress, Rhodes explained.
“We can go into a downward spiral any day, over anything,” he said, adding that he found his way to refocus through horses over the years.
“You have to figure out a way to get a positive in what you are doing,” he said, “and not focus so much on the negative things in life.”
He and his wife tailor their time to what veterans and their families need, Rhodes said, so whether veterans need a unit family day, a class on resilience or just time with the family in a quiet place, they’re ready to help.
In December, more than 50 Army Reserve soldiers from the Fort Benning-based 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 Army Capt. Cheryl Miller, an HHC officer with 1st Brigade, 98th Training Division (IET).
The local facility offered the Reserve soldiers with a unique opportunity to unwind, said Army 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,” he said.
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 Army 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,” he added.
Volunteers Keep Ranch Running
Creating a ranch doesn’t just happen overnight though. It takes a lot of volunteers to run the nonprofit organization so it 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 keep the ranch running.
Hoffman, who found out about the ranch through a friend, said he offered to help out for one event a few years ago, and he hasn’t stopped since.
“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 volunteers 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 camaraderie out here,” Hoffman said. “We need more volunteers. If you’ve got a chainsaw, come on. I got lots of work for us to do!”
But 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 those who have no time to volunteer in person can help by donating hay or food or garden tools.
Rhodes said he does give out one safety warning to all his guests and volunteers, though, just so they know what they are getting into: “Once you come out here, you’ll fall in love with it and you won’t want to leave.”