Joint Base Lewis-McChord records a record number of suicides in 2011 and opens up a 408-bed barracks for its Wounded Warrior Transition Battalion. Combined with the Air Force’s Medical Flight, the number of JBLM soldiers and airmen suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury often swells to around 700.
The ruins of war are all around us in the South Sound, so how humbling would it be for a solider to say to you, “I was going to end my life, and now I’m not, because of what you did for me”?
Debbi Fisher of Yelm hears that almost every week.
Fisher lost her husband of 30 years, Randy, to a head-on car crash in 2006. He was a lieutenant colonel stationed at McChord Air Force Base, having served for 28 years.
To recover, she turned to the couple’s seven horses on their 5-acre farm. But her husband’s horse, a 16.3 hand, 1,500-pound giant named Root Beer, was riderless. So Randy’s superior officer rode with her every day for 30 days.
That experience of healing through horsemanship took three more years to gel, but Fisher retired from her 20-year career at U.S. Bank in 2009 and took what she calls a “step of faith.”
And so began the Rainier Therapeutic Riding program helping active-duty and veteran service men and women recover from their visible and invisible wounds.
“The Lord put it in my heart that I could make a difference, and told me he would provide,” Fisher says.
Her nonprofit relies solely on donations and the good will of her neighbors. She doesn’t charge JBLM or the soldiers a penny, and she doesn’t make a dime. More than 100 volunteers have joined her mission, and donations to cover the $700 per soldier cost have come from sources as diverse as Milgard Windows and a motorcycle club.
A Gig Harbor mother who lost a son to a PTSD-related suicide organized the Race For A Soldier, and donated all the proceeds to Fisher’s riding program.
It’s a full-time job, but for Fisher the rewards exceed any monetary benefit.
She tells of a 28-year-old Air Force gunner who deployed six times and had seen terrible things, including watching friends die in front of him. He was extremely suicidal. Doctors had him taking 42 pills a day. After two sessions of horsemanship, the young man’s mother called Fisher from Pennsylvania one day.
The mother couldn’t believe the difference in her son, just talking to him on the phone. She told Fisher, “Thank you. You saved my son’s life.”
The program works partly because the horse is a prey animal. It naturally feels vulnerable and that it is being stalked. It behaves instinctively. Sufferers of PTSD also tend to react without thinking. They are hyper-vigilant all the time because that is what kept them alive.
As the leader in their relationship with the horse, the soldiers teach their horse to think and not react, and that message is transferred to their own lives.
“We owe them. ... We let our Vietnam vets down so badly,” Fisher says. “I just have to do what I can do.”
And what she does is give soldiers their lives back.
A young woman who returned from Afghanistan with PTSD was in and out of JBLM’s high suicide risk ward several times. She would not speak a word. She had the saddest face you would ever see.
But after going through the program, her first sergeant told Fisher it was frustrating for so long, “But now I can’t get her to shut up about her horse.”
The program is little more than a year old, but Fisher says this is her life now. “It feels good to be a blessing to others.”
If you’ve thought about learning to kayak, do rock climbing or maybe even summit Mount Rainier, then you should attend the Olympia Mountaineers annual Orientation Night on Tuesday from 6-8:30 p.m. at the Worthington Center.
George Le Masurier, publisher of The Olympian, can be reached at 360-357-0206 or email@example.com.