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Wounded Warriors at Home on the Range
Fort Worth Star-Telegram | February 27, 2009GRAHAM, Texas -- The men crewed 50-calibers through Iraq neighborhoods, survived roadside bomb blasts, attended memorial services for buddies.
Now they were being asked to cut cattle, on foot, in front of one another and a handful of real cowboys. It's safe to say there wasn't exactly a rush to start.
But within a few minutes, the 15 veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan -- almost all of them self-described city boys whose experience with livestock extends only to the dinner plate -- had learned a thing or two about patience and teamwork, and for a few minutes of laughter and sweat, they could forget about the war that still haunts them.
"It's like we're back in the field now," said Jeremy Williams, a 26-year-old who served three tours in Iraq with the Marines.
The veterans came from throughout the United States to spend four days at the stylish Wildcatter Ranch outside Graham, invited by the Wounded Warrior Project and the owners of the ranch to help restore their spirits. Some of the men have physical injuries, but each of them is struggling to deal with combat stress and their return to civilian society.
The Wounded Warrior Project, based in Florida but with an office in San Antonio, paid for the men's transportation. Anne Street Skipper, who co-owns the Wildcatter Ranch with her brother, took care of everything else.
The men went canoeing down Connor Creek and rode horses through the rolling hills of Young County. They consumed rib-eyes and chicken-frieds, got massages, shot skeet. They stayed in luxurious rooms, and they visited an elementary school, where the children gave them Graham Steers ballcaps.
"I have never seen anything like this before," said Harvey Stubbs Jr., a Chicago-area native who was medically retired from the Army because of his injuries. "The outpouring of love from this town has been amazing. A lot of people give lip service to supporting the troops, but these people have opened their hearts to us in ways I can't believe."
A chance to have fun
It was the second year that the Wildcatter Ranch -- a luxury resort and retreat, not a working ranch -- hosted a group of veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress, a mental-health problem that affects thousands of Soldiers and Marines who have deployed to war multiple times in recent years.
Most of the Project Odyssey trips run by the Wounded Warrior Project are in national parks. Wildcatter is the only one in Texas.
"We hope to get them to a place in a nonthreatening environment, where they can have fun and have an opportunity to be around veterans going through the same thing," said Will Chick, an outreach coordinator for the project in San Antonio. "That way if they find themselves in crisis, they have someone they can contact, someone they already trust."
Stubbs, 32, who served with the 3rd Infantry Division, survived three roadside bombs in Baghdad but has disabling injuries from the last. His left foot was reattached and new toes were fashioned out of tissue from his hip.
"I'm in pain every day, and I thank God for that," he said. "It could have been a lot worse. I made it. Other guys didn't."
He said leaving the military and returning to civilian life is difficult, a lot more than most people can comprehend. Well-meaning people ask intrusive questions and don't understand what it is like to live with memories of war.
"Being around other veterans is the best part" of the Wildcatter Ranch trip, he said. "I don't have to worry about someone judging me. I don't have to edit my words. The fun is in riding the horses."
Williams, who lives in a small town near Huntsville and attends Sam Houston State University, served in the Marines for six years until he was medically retired after a roadside bomb blast in Ramadi in April 2006 during his third tour in Iraq. He has a traumatic brain injury from the blast and post-traumatic stress, and he came home to a failed marriage.
On Tuesday night, he couldn't sleep. He got up to go outside to smoke a cigarette. There were four other veterans on the front porch doing the same. They each shared insights into what was bothering him and how to work it out in his head. That's why he's grateful for the four-day trip to Graham.
"I think I've learned to be more open-minded about people and talkative," he said. "Instead of pushing people away, I need to educate them and help them understand what we are going through. Being here, it's allowed me to do that a lot."
Skipper said she hopes to bring another group of veterans to her ranch and resort next year
"Our staff loves it," she said, "and to a person, they wanted to do it again. Plus, it's the right thing to do."
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