Pressure and Release
My favorite politician of the 20th Century, Winston Churchill, once stated "There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man." Just outside of Three Forks, Montana are a group of people who have dedicated themselves to proving that to our service men and women.
I can't remember the exact wording, but somewhere in my reptile brain I remember MOTHAX asking me if I wanted to go on a cattle drive like City Slickers. To this day, he insists he never said Cattle Drive. Either way, I was game. Who wouldn't be? Who wouldn't fly halfway across the country with people you never met to ride horses?
In terms of background - I've ridden a horse maybe a couple of times before. I never really had anyone tell me much about the process other than - try to stay away from the back end, they kick you. Every previous experience had done little to convince me they were much different from big bicycles who really liked hay and apples. That said, I was more than game to participate.
"Heroes and Horses" (link: http://www.heroesandhorses.net/ ) is run out of the Mantle Ranch in Three Forks. Through the sponsorship of Soldier's Angels (link: http://soldiersangels.org/ ) they run an intensive seven day program designed to help combat veterans reintegrate. It's a way of giving back. In their own words:
"The Heroes and Horses program is designed to give America's war veterans an opportunity to heal those wounds by experiencing the joys of nature in a setting of rugged beauty and peacefulness, alongside their fellow soldiers, with equine partners to take them into the pristine backcountry of the Rocky Mountains, and the knowledge to do so."
My call to action began with an e-mail from Blackfive beginning "Gentlemen...and Mongo." At the time, I assumed this was merely a witty Blazing Saddles reference, which I am all for. It turns out Mongo was actually one of my fellow participants, which turned out to be even better. The whole thing turned out to be even better. Far better than I could have even imagined.
Flying into Bozeman we glide over snow covered peaks. Given that I don't hail from north of Winterfell I am somewhat unaccustomed to summer snows. Part of me wonders whether we'll actually be headed out into snow and I start to doubt whether I packed enough warm clothes. C'est la vie. I'm a grunt, I can adapt to anything for a short period of time. I hit the airport and am greeted by a big sign coming down the jet-way welcoming me to Montana on behalf of the local Legion Post, which I take to be a good omen.
Eventually we are gathered up by Mark, a tough old cowboy and former electrical lineman with one leg who is literally the one legged man in an ass kicking contest. You could call up central casting and ask for a grizzled, veteran cowboy and they'd send him out, somewhere between Slim Pickins and that guy who played the manager in Major League. Mark is big and friendly and easy to know, and he and his wife Jean are there to get us from Bozeman out to the ranch.
Along the way we start to get the safety briefing in the truck. Mark apparently has spent a lot of time around Grizzlies and he wants us to understand that if a Grizzly gets to messing with you, you best lay on your stomach, cover the back of your neck with your hands and start praying...no matter what happens, stay on your stomach and protect your neck and you might get away with being maimed.
I am reminded of a series of briefings we went through before we shipped off to Afghanistan. Basically, the briefings consisted of one military expert after another coming in to explain the hazards you can expect to face in country and ran along the lines of "This is what a face ravaged by leishmaniasis looks like..." or "Nine of the world's ten deadliest snakes are native to Afghanistan..."
I can't even remember if any of those are real threats, but all of this IS upping the ante. What the hell though, I'm game. Seriously, we have seven combat veterans and Mark assures me we'll be packing some firepower. Besides, I know that I don't have to be faster than the bear, only faster than MOTHAX, and I'm reasonably certain I can manage that, especially if I trip him.
After all, when it all comes down to it, a bear isn't half as scary as MOTHAX in a cowboy hat.
At the ranch we are greeted by Kail Mantle and his wife Renee. Gear is dropped off and we get to the introductions and the important things. There is beer on the front porch. There's a local Montana brew called "Moose Drool" which is a surprisingly good brown ale. Later, at dinner, there will be an excellent merlot, and I realize typing this that MOTHAX's eyes have begun to roll.
I meet the rest of the guys: myself and MOTHAX, Mike from Chicago, Ryan and Mongo (who is also named Mike, but Mongo is far more fun to say) and Matt and Bob. We have amongst our ranks a Marine, a couple of Navy guys, a forward observer and Infantry both leg and airborne. Every one of us a combat veteran and many with more than a few scars. Branch of service doesn't even matter. Joe is a Joe is a Joe. Inside a couple of minutes we are all shooting the breeze like old friends, even though most of us have never met. It's easy and infectious, and I'm sure the beer helps a bit.
A light rain has been falling, and...I'm not making this up...a double rainbow shoots across the sky. DOUBLE RAINBOW! This, naturally, leads to discussion of various internet jokes, which leads to a couple of the younger guys shooting out lines from Tosh.O who has a TV show about web redemption on Comedy Central. Kail our fearless cowboy leader immediately connects with this and soon they are swapping favorite episodes. From the outside, I never would have called this, but this is actually something I will begin to notice as a theme this week.
Cowboys and soldiers have more in common than they have in differences.
Renee comes to the door to take orders for how we want our steaks cooked - medium rare, medium rare, medium rare, medium rare, medium...well, you get the point. Everyone laughs. This is another theme for the week - everyone laughs. When all of this is over I will not be able to remember a week in my life I laughed so much. My experience of veterans - or at least the ones I spent time around - was that we laugh at everything. Maybe it's because we've been places where all you have left is laughter, because anything else would make you remember how awful a situation you're in. I remember guys laughing in the midst of incoming tracer fire, because there really wasn't anything else to do. It occurs to me maybe cowboys have some of this gallows humor too, anyone who lives a tough life with tough odds. Rock may beat scissors but fear can't beat laughter. Laughter is not just the best medicine. Laughter is the best defense.
The evening winds down with drinks and chatter on the porch, until we realize morning will come far too soon and trundle off to our cabins. Even in the cabins, the barracks chatter continues, and talk of being on deployment, being in the field and killing ghosts lingers into the late, late hours.
Here begins our training in earnest. Kail Mantle, who runs this here ranch, is not a big guy, although he stands taller than his height. Lean and spare, with a perpetual toothpick in his cheek, he is full of dry humor. Before we get to the horses, we begin to learn how to perceive them, how to anticipate them, how they tick...which will make everything else fall into place.
Pressure and release. Everything is pressure and release. Exert pressure so everywhere in the world except where you want them to go is wrong and when they go where you want - release the pressure and help them with that decision. It boils down to being that simple. I have the sneaking suspicion that there's a lot of life lessons in dealing with horses. It's the sort of thing some self help guru could craft into a book that would be a million seller. Pressure and release. It has a lot to do with working with what the world gives you and making that fit. The world is a big place that's tough to change, but if you can shape your aims to the shape of the world, it flows much more easily.
In due time, we are learning to sort horses in the corral (tomorrow we will do this on our own, and on our horses) and how to approach and halter them without driving them crazy. This moves on to saddling, and adding the bit and bridle, and eventually we're up and riding. Eventually this leads down to the "Ultimate Horse Course" which is basically a collection of obstacles you're likely to encounter on the trail. We splash through creeks, up slippery rocks, though a mass of downed branches and wood, and other sorts of things.
Through this we are assisted by Kail and Mark, and the young hand Brett, who wears a belt buckle proclaiming rodeo champion status that I swear weighs more than he does. He's quiet but knows his business. By the end of the week he will come out of his shell more, leaping into the constant stream of mutual abuse that is soldiering with the same abandon as anyone else here. Part of what forges teams of soldiers is busting on each other. It's pretty obvious this is part of what forges groups of cowboys.
This carries over into the late afternoon activity - the RFD or R Floatation Device (I'll let you figure out the R) which is a picnic table strapped to some oil drums. We float it out onto one of the ponds, and enjoy the cool afternoon air while our compatriots on land hurls rocks at us. It is much, MUCH more fun than it sounds. I also learn a new definition for "muck" but that's a tale for another day.
Dinner is served and it's an amazing grilled chicken with some kind of mango chutney over it that just knocks your socks off. I should note at this point that the real heroes of this week were Renee and Rosalie in the kitchen, who provided food on a level you'd expect from gourmet restaurants. Part of me - and I think Mike mentioned this too - was hoping to lose weight going out into the wild. Fat chance. The only one displaying any willpower and not shoveling far more than we should be eating into his mouth is Matt. When asked how he can resist overindulging in this amazing food he replies with a laconic "The Discipline." with a Zen centering hand gesture and a tone of voice that underlines the capital "D" in "Discipline." Even "The Discipline" will break Saturday night when Rosalie breaks out a pumpkin and praline pie.
We cap the night off with a campfire. I'm not making this next part up. MOTHAX brings a laptop to the campfire. That boy ain't right.
With basic riding under our belts we move on to learning about pack horses. We will each be controlling a saddle horse and pack horse on this trek, and so we learn how to balance and tie off the loads. More importantly we learn how to load them up without spooking them. This is trickier than it looks.
You see, by this time we're starting to get the feel of things, and that's when you start to get complacent. A massive draft horse named Krinkle (Mark the cowboy will take to calling him Circus before the trip is done because handling him is so exciting) is one of the shiftier horses, sketchy about being loaded. Another horse named Bobby McGee goes nuts and bucks his load all over the yard, bags of oats flying everywhere and damn near setting every horse off. It's a little sobering to think that - this could happen up on some mountain trail somewhere and wouldn't THAT be fun, and - WE are the ones who are supposed to be controlling these horses. Seven veterans, three cowboys and nine pack horses to carry our gear. That means each and every one of us will need to literally start pulling our own weight. Of course...this isn't new to any of us.
By the end of the day, we're as ready as we'll ever be and set to head off into the mountains early next morning.
Sunday-Tuesday: Into the Mountains
Early to rise, saddle and load 19 horses into two trailers along with all of the gear and supplies packed away for our trip. We hit the road and head for the trailhead outside Ennis, Montana. From there it will be about nine miles up into the mountains. Overall the ride up goes well, except for a dodgy moment when one of the pack horses spooks, shaking up the cargo, but nothing is lost or damaged. This is good, as the horse was carrying the whiskey, and it's time to say thanks for plastic bottles.
There's a portion of the traverse consisting of switchbacks working our way down into the valley, as the trail precipitously drops away down a rock hillside to the side. Back and forth the narrow trail zees down the side of the valley. Later, MOTHAX will ask me if the pucker factor was high for that stretch of the trail. I tell him it was worse driving the HUMVEES in Afghanistan over the narrow roads. HUMVEES don't have a vested interest in staying on the trail, but I'm pretty sure horses do.
Once we hit the meadow campsite we tie the horses off and get to setting up camp. Kail walks us through the first tent then settles in to watch us put up the other two. Tent three becomes a major production number. In a way, this is hilarious. Most of us aren't used to setting up anything so visible to sleep in. The third tent manages to fall down three times during set up - once during a minor horse jailbreak that causes some excitement. Watching Kail laugh his ass off in the chair while the tent comes down is worth the price of admission. There is something about this experience that just screams Army futility, and for that reason it's endearing beyond words.
The next three days are basically the textbook definition of idyllic. I don't want to wax rhapsodic about food again, but basically biscuits and gravy over an open campfire is about heaven on earth. Ryan raves they are the best biscuits and gravy he's ever had and I'm willing to admit he's probably right, and I've had a LOT of biscuits and gravy.
Conversation flows over the days into a million topics each more absurd than the last. From tales of bad judgment to pipe dreams of midget paratrooper regiments, we talked and fished and rode up to higher meadows. We saw signs of bears and moose (is the plural of moose "meese"?) and Mark taught us how to fish without a fishing pole - but it's an old secret and I withhold the technique for fear of retribution from the ninja masters who taught Mark - one hint, it involves tickling.
MOTHAX works harder on a trip than in the office
This is the central focal point of this program. Getting war veterans out to the wilds, out to the peace and tranquility. I cannot state with more conviction how much this worked. Kail told us when we first arrived "This is about giving you a taste of the freedom you fought for." Nobody has ever shown freedom to me more tangibly. We've talked among ourselves and we're uncomfortable as veterans when someone thanks us for our service. We don't understand getting thanked for just doing our job. Don't get me wrong, I really appreciate people noticing the work service members perform. It's just an awkward situation nobody knows how to react to.
This gift, this taste of freedom, up in the last, wild, free spaces - this is the distillation of what they mean to do here and it works. I can't speak for anyone else, and what they got out of it, other than to say to a man we all agreed this was beyond our wildest expectations. It was hard to let go and head home...although I suspect over time provisions would have worn out and we would have been forced to eat someone, probably the weakest one and that's usually me...so we go home.
Krinkle (aka Circus) picked the ride home as a great time to spook and ride across the grasslands scattering gear across a wide swath of land and turning Kail and Brett into tiny specks on the horizon as they chased him. Eventually, all was recovered and wearily we made it back, packed the trucks and reluctantly headed for home.
At dinner that night, Renee would present us with cards and read to us her inscription of thanks to us. I recall being dumbfounded, struck silent with the backwardness of the situation. I remember being in awe that THEY were thanking US. All any of us did was the duty we signed up for. When you sign up to run horses, there's no expectation that you go out of your way to bring soldiers into your house and home - that's just the mark of greatness in people. We all knew what we were signing up for. They never signed up for any of this.
Somewhere in the difference between duty and true giving is where this all connects. We don't think we did anything special because we just did what duty demanded. They think we did something special because in this all volunteer age, we decided that our service would take on duty that demanded sacrifice.
In the end, you can say we had a choice, but I don't think any of us did, from the veterans to the cowboys and their wives. It's not a choice because we listened to something inside that told us what was a right and good thing to do. It's funny how to each the other's sacrifices seem so much greater.
At the end of the day, we all got great friends and laughs and stories that will last a lifetime. It sounds corny and silly, but it's heartfelt and true. This is the most worthy cause I can think of being associated with since leaving service.
There's a sobering note to all of this that is hard to come to grips with. This was supposed to be a trip for eight veterans, but one chose to take his life before we could make the trip. I will never know what was in his mind. I will never know if it could have helped to come with us. I have to believe that it could. You never know what it's like for someone else. I only know I've faced demons down and in those dark nights of the soul it would have helped to hold onto moments like this week brought.
Recently a new VA hotline for suicides received a record of over 14,000 calls. I know from my own experiences that coming home from war is not an easy adjustment. You can't just step out of one pair of boots into another and think there's not impact; that it will be easy and without bumps. What is so vital about this program is that it is normal people, motivated not by government or profit, but by real care in their hearts that want to reach out these veterans and give them a reason to live back in the peacetime world.
This is real and good beyond measure. I write this to urge people to connect in whatever way they can. Everyone has within them the strength and power to make a difference in the world. The only thing holding you back is you. Help people now in your community and by all means help Soldier's Angels make this trip a reality for more soldiers.