This November is National Veterans and Military Families Month. We honor ‘Hippie’ who served 5 years in the United States Marine Corps. Here’s the story of how Wildwood Hills Ranch helped him find redemption and belonging:
So, Hippie, you’re a veteran?
The prestige of the Marines attracted me. I didn’t have the money or grades for college so I signed up for the Marines the day after the Vietnam War ended. I served as a helicopter crew chief in the western Pacific for five years, surviving a crash that killed a soldier. In the Marines, we strived to be the toughest and the best—we worked hard and partied with the best of them, drugging and drinking to fit in.
What came after the Marines?
The partying carried into my civilian life when I came back to Iowa. All of my activities outside of work centered around alcohol. I even started a softball team called the ‘Sober Nots’ and carried beer into the ball field. I always had a reason to drink whether something good or bad had happened. Then came the day when I had to have a drink just to function. It didn’t help that I had a predisposition to alcohol—my dad and uncle were both alcoholics.
Before long, I couldn’t cope with life and alcohol controlled me. I lost everything in the process: my job, my money and my marriage. I went through several treatment programs before I gave it up. When life became totally unmanageable, I entered the Domiciliary, an in-patient program at the VA Central Iowa Health Care System where I finally became willing to take responsibility for my problem. July 4th is my sobriety birthday.
How did you end up at Wildwood Hills Ranch?
I signed up for equine therapy at the Dom and came down to the Ranch with a van full of guys. We had horses as a kid and thought this was something I wanted to get back into. I needed to change everything about my life—my friends, the places I went, my habits—so this seemed like a good place to start.
There is calmness to equine therapy and the connection with the horse had a calming effect on me. If you ask right, the horse wants to please you. It’s a partnership—opposite of ‘put the spurs to them’ like I’d learned in childhood. This understanding bleeds over into people. I used to be a bull in a china shop, blasting orders into a room, but I learned from horses this isn’t the best way. Now I tell people what I expect of them and gently ask for help, having learned from horses.
What has Wildwood meant to you?
I have so many things I could be bitter about: I’ve seen quite a bit of death, a tractor rolling over my friend most recently, I’m a cancer survivor and my addiction caused a lot of pain. But I also have so many blessings in my life—the Ranch is one.
The Ranch is my serenity; I know I am safe here and look forward to coming every week. Wildwood is a maintenance step in my recovery that I have to do to stay the course. I trust myself here and I am trusted here. I’ve earned respect from people who I respect, and that means a lot to me. It’s a nonjudgmental place where I’m genuinely cared for and given an opportunity to move forward.
I’ve made relationships you can’t buy. I get calls and texts from other veterans in the program who ask me how I’m doing and sometimes that’s what gets me through the day. I see a lifestyle modeled by leadership that I strive for. I’ve strengthened my relationship with my kids who sometime come with me to ride. And now I get to help other veterans in the program; I’m doing stuff that nobody would have let me touch a few years ago.
When I first showed up at the Ranch after the Dom program, I said, “God, take my life.” Mr. Lynn met me and asked what size shirt and hat I wore and ran home. He came back, I got dressed and that night I rode alongside our country’s flag at a rodeo in Afton, Iowa. God met me that night and it’s been a rodeo with the Ranch ever since.
This past year, Wildwood Hills Ranch hosted 150 veterans, active service members and their families who took part in our free ‘Saddles After Service’ equestrian program.