Q&A With Heroes and Horses Founder, Micah Fink (Part I)
1. Where do you see the program in 5 years? 10 years?
The difficult aspect of scaling a program like ours always comes down to the breadth vs. depth issue. I would, obviously, like to help as many veterans as possible, BUT I don’t want the quality of our product to ever suffer at the hands of expansion. Our goal is to always remain true to what makes this program so powerful and unique. That all said, we are working tirelessly on flushing out a number of ideas that will allow us to grow the program in a sustainable and effective manner.
As we look forward to the next 5 years, we plan to utilize data that is being captured on our program participants to begin affecting change at the policy-maker level. This is really the only way that we can tackle this enormous issue on a global scale, and change the current process for “fixing” this issue, as those “fixes” have undoubtedly contributed to the issue at hand. With regards to long-term assets, we are in the process of exploring the possibility of acquiring a year-round working ranch, along with creating a sustainability model that will entirely fund the operations, which will provide us with a home base, and allow us to develop other programs (such as those targeting the families of veterans, or female veterans) using the current Heroes and Horses philosophy.
2. What continues to surprise you, and what has this experience taught you that we, as citizens can do a better job of?
People surprise me, horses surprise me and the current state of our culture surprise me daily. I have learned and truly believe that living someone else’s idea is caustic and will leave you empty and with void, and I constantly try to keep the following principals in mind:
- Authenticity is rare, and struggle is our greatest ally in finding it.
- It always gets worse before it gets better.
- Purpose is a process.
- Pressure and time change people, horses and the environment.
- Choice is the most powerful asset we have at our disposal.
- Life is filled with trauma - combat, car accidents, cancer, divorce – it doesn’t really matter what the trauma is, what’s important is understanding that this is just life giving us an opportunity to learn and grow.
With regards to what citizens can do a better job of – I would start with education. Educate yourselves on what current nonprofit organizations are doing, where their money is going, and what type of impact they are having. Inquire as to what our government is doing to help those with PTSD, and ask yourself whether you find that acceptable or not. Lastly, continue to work on living your most authentic life, and on not always taking the easy way out. When you focus on creating your best self, you will be surprised to see the ripple effect that is had on your family, colleagues, friends and community.
3. How do you respond to criticism that your methods of mental health and healing go against what is “normal”? And how did you reach that conclusion?
You can’t have a voice without the risk of criticism, so I am OK with that. Any innovator faces criticism constantly, because they are typically up against major industry, high-powered noise that speaks to the contrary. In the 1980's General Mills pushed out the idea that “eggs are bad, eat whole grain”, in the 60’s and 70’s you had Nestle Corp telling us that “breast feeding is bad”, and, sure, you have the US authorities in medicine telling us “combat makes veterans sick, but if you take enough of ‘x drug’, you will get ‘normal’ again”. What all of those scenarios have in common is private interest and money. For every veteran that goes through our program and doesn’t become addicted to ‘x drug’, the pharmaceutical industry is losing money. Ultimately, perception is reality, and I think we allow our reality to be completely shaped by those that call themselves “professionals”, or major industry leaders, instead of asking ourselves “is this working?” or “is this really true?”.
Let me be clear - I believe that medication and traditional therapy, without a doubt, can dramatically improve people’s lives. What I don’t believe is that that is the only answer, or that that answer works for everyone. What I also have a problem with is the over-prescribing of medications that has led to a dramatic increase in the number of veterans who are now addicts, and the medical labels, such as “sick”, that are placed on these individuals. This isn’t a question of “should a person do our program, or go to traditional therapy” – both are two completely different approaches, and it’s important for the individual to decide what is right for them.
What I do know, is that something isn’t working with the “normal” methods of mental health and healing for our veterans. Again, this is not to say that “all doctors are wrong”, or “all therapists are bad”, or “all medication is poison”, I say this to encourage people to really open their eyes and ask themselves, “is this working”? If not, “why”?
I am not an expert in mental health, nor do I claim to be, but what I do know is this:
- People change two ways: pressure and time, and that change is proportional to how much and how long.
- The easy answer will kill you eventually. Eating donuts and taking Lipitor is easier than eating healthy and exercising. Taking Xanax or Valium to deal with anxiety is easier than practicing yoga or meditation 6 days a week. Easy doesn’t save lives. Easy doesn’t create sustainable change.
4. What have been the residual long-term benefits that participants experience, specifically with regards to how these individuals deal with every day challenges in their personal lives?
You can find our first published study on our website, which looks at data collected on students going through the first two phases of this program. This study was conducted by Dr. David Alter, and I encourage all of you to read it. We are also in the process of collecting data on this year’s students, and we will be releasing that study later this year. What we have found is that this process teaches these individuals that what they are looking for, they already have, and that it is purpose that will allow them to overcome their external circumstances. No matter what you do in life, this process gives you insight into who you really are. Our students leave the program with this new-found knowledge as their greatest tool, but it is their free choice to use it to their advantage or to their disadvantage. We find that many of our students choose to use it as a positive tool, and we continue, to this day, to track the long-term effects of that on all of our graduates.
5. How has your program evolved from the feedback you receive from vets?
I firmly believe that you can always be improving, refining your processes, and evolving, and we make it a point to do this every single year. Our program is more comprehensive than it’s ever been, and we have future plans to begin incorporating a separate training program, along with a leadership development model. The feedback we receive from our students is incredibly important to me, because they are why this program exists. If we aren’t helping them, if they aren’t growing, then we need to start over. I’m not here to just run another veteran nonprofit – we don’t need another one of those. I’m here to create something that is effective, sustainable, long-lasting, and that changes the statistics.
6. I saw the gear “wish list” earlier this year, and follow your fundraising efforts, but aside from financial contributions, what other ways can we help support the program? What is the greatest need?
We are a small, lean team, which means that we rely heavily on our amazing volunteers to keep this well-oiled machine running. So, that said, volunteering with our organization is always appreciated, and we offer a number of different ways to do so – from helping to set up camp, to cooking for our veterans, to helping to facilitate our fundraising events. As you mentioned, we do have a “wish list” on our website, which we are continually updating, and simply getting the word out via social media is a huge help to us. We want to raise awareness just as much as we want to raise funds. Lastly, I want to note how much of an impact all of your financial contributions have made on the success and longevity of our organization thus far. Many of you often express to us that you wish you could donate more, which we appreciate, but let me reiterate how every single donation – big, small, and in-between – makes a huge difference.
7. Is this program just for men?
Is the program that we have created only suitable for men? Absolutely not. Does our current program only serve men at this moment? Yes. That said, we are working tirelessly behind the scenes to develop improved models that will allow us to, in the not-so-distant-future, serve our female veterans as well. We ask for your patience with this, and please know that we are just as anxious as you are to see this type of expansion.
8. Do the vets sit around and sing koombya and talk about their feelings? What type of atmosphere is it? Are you forced to talk about your PTSD, depression, anxiety, etc.? Is it like therapy, or is it all about packing and team building?
HA! #NOTAVACATION….absolutely not. Is there anything wrong with the “koombya method”? That’s not for me to say, nor am I too concerned with what other organizations are doing. What I do care about is creating something completely different than what is out there, because the statistics are getting worse, and something needs to change.