BUCHANAN, Va. (AP) — “ Will the people that have a flag in their hand raise the flag up?” asked New Freedom Farm founder Lois Fritz.
Inside the newly renovated meeting room, 22 people raised the small American flags Fritz had given to them before her presentation started. “If you look around, there are 22 flags standing up,” she said. “Today, 22 veterans will have taken their lives. 22 veterans a day in our country.”
At a grand opening lunch on Jan. 4 that celebrated completed renovations to the three-year-old nonprofit’s welcome center, Fritz was explaining why she and her husband Mitchell moved from New Jersey in pursuit of a dream that combined a therapy program for veterans with a rescue program for horses. “Today, if one veteran is saved, it makes a difference in the world,” she said.
The small agricultural building that holds Fritz’s office had no plumbing or heat when refurbishing work began in October 2018. David Lalush, a contractor and Botetourt County parks maintenance employee, “came to me and said he would do all the construction work for free,” Fritz said. “Out of 52 weekends, 48 of them, Becky and Dave were here from sun up to sundown.”
“Saturday and Sunday, Friday and Monday,” Lalush said with a humorous twinkle.
“Dave took personal time, his own time, to hurry it up and get the project done,” Fritz said.
David and Becky Lalush are Gold Star parents. Their son, U.S. Marine Sgt. Michael Lalush, was killed in a helicopter crash in Iraq in 2003. The Lord Botetourt High School graduate was the first Western Virginia casualty in that war.
Helping out New Freedom Farm has been therapeutic for the couple. “I love being around the veterans,” said Becky Lalush. “I love just seeing what can happen here, and the support, how everybody just comes together. It’s just so good for everybody.”
“New Freedom Farm gives people something to belong to,” said Mitchell Fritz, Lois’ husband, whom she frequently, jokingly refers to as “Mr. Budget,” as he often makes it a point to remind her about costs.
The idea for New Freedom Farm grew out of Lois Fritz’s own experiences. “A horse helped me,” she said.
After her service in the U.S. Navy ended, she went to work as a forensic nurse, investigating deaths for the prosecutor’s office in Warren County, New Jersey. “That’s where I learned a lot about trauma.”
Some of the trauma she tried to learn to live with was very personal. “My former boyfriend was a Marine, and he took his life,” she told the audience. “He did it 100% clean and sober.”
Her husband said that she struggled to deal with those traumas, including self-medicating with alcohol. “People who see combat and see dead bodies and rescue people from car crashes, she did all the things that those people do to cope,” he said.
A therapist recommended she try doing something she always wanted to do, so she signed up for horseback riding lessons. “The first touch of the horse was when she was 40.” By 2015, when they decided to move from New Jersey to Botetourt County, they were boarding five horses, four of which were rescues.
New Freedom Farm has 20 equine residents, including donkeys and wild mustangs. The nonprofit’s signature program involves pairing veterans with wild mustangs to gentle and train, but interacting with the animals is not a requirement. Those seeking solace are welcome to just come visit. There is no admission charge, Mitchell Fritz said.
A funny, gregarious speaker, Lois Fritz has translated that charisma to social media, where she’s built a substantial Facebook following that has helped spread word about New Freedom Farm across the country. Veterans have come from as far as New Hampshire and Vermont to visit, Mitchell Fritz said, sometimes with transportation and financial assistance from groups like Rolling Thunder or the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
“We’ve been supporting Lois since 2016,” said Brenda Einhorn, a Rolling Thunder member from the organization’s home state of New Jersey. “She has saved quite a few lives.”