Season Recap Part 1: Micah Fink
We recently completed Phases 1 and 2 of our 2017 season, and over the next few weeks we will be placing students for Phase 3. Our students were with us for nearly 40 days straight, and what a transformative 40 days it has been. As I take a moment to reflect on the past several weeks, my brain is flooded with memories of challenges, lessons learned, and personal growth. I am continually amazed at the positive impact that pressure has on individuals, including myself. I often find myself exhausted, physically and emotionally, after a season has concluded, as I am constantly experiencing growth and challenge right alongside of our students. I believe that it is my duty to fully and deeply understand where each student is coming from, and finding that balance of extroverted-ness and introverted-ness is never easy, but it is always worth it. Throughout it all, I always keep my focus forward, and trust in the process – the rest is in God’s hands.
We had 15 students this year, split into two classes. Class 1 started out with 7 students (we originally had 8, but we had a student cancel due to a work conflict, which was very disappointing, as we had 104 individuals apply for our program this year), and Class 2 started with 8 students. Many of our students rode mustangs from our 500 Miles Project, and with both classes we spent a considerable amount of time ensuring appropriate horse/student matches. Our horses are the foundation of our process, so we take this “match-making” piece very seriously.
The first 5 days of the program were spent learning the foundations of horsemanship, riding, packing, equine health, mountain travel skills, and listening to presentations on wilderness and public land stewardship from The Wilderness Society. The classes then departed into the backcountry for an 8-day progressive pack trip. During the pack trips the students were tasked with the tremendous responsibility of taking care of themselves, their horses, and their team members, all while clearing trails, grazing stock, building camp, and route planning. The participants climb well over 10,000 feet, and the terrain is incredibly challenging (to put it lightly). But, it’s not just the terrain that produces challenges for these men – it’s their relationships with their horses, their other classmates, and, perhaps most importantly, themselves. There is no better classroom than the backcountry, and this environment truly strips away any semblance of an outer shell that they may be carrying.
Immediately following the completion of Phase 1, both classes were sent to a military-style ropes course for a half-day, and then were enrolled in a 6-day wilderness survival school (did I mention that this is #notavacation?). This survival school can often be one of the most challenging parts of this process, as any “comforts” that the students may have had at base camp – even if it was just a sleeping cot and tent – were taken away from them. Not only that, but they are often tasked with doing things that they don’t want to do, while being incredibly uncomfortable doing it. Why do we do this? Because this is life. Life is uncomfortable, and we often have to do things we don’t want to do, but those are the moments that, typically, have the greater long-term benefit. For some of these veterans, this is the first time that they are taking a long, hard look at themselves and who they really are, and this can be eye-opening, and sometimes painful. The pill-popping, the anger, the lying, the blaming, the negativity, the alcoholism – all of the things that they have been using to run away from themselves all of sudden come to the forefront, and they see these things for what they are – temporary, and ineffective, band aides. And just like a horse, you will eventually hit a fence, because life can ride you faster than you can run.
After the completion of the survival school, the students head back to base camp. This year we lost 1 student after the survival school portion. Without going into detail on the specifics, I will just reiterate how challenging it can be to come face-to-face with who we really are, and sometimes we just aren’t ready. Coming up on Phase 2, I was proud to see that both classes had met and overcome many challenges, and had truly progressed as a team. A lot of these guys were pretty banged up at this point, but they were all committed to digging deep, and to keep on pressing forward – this is true grit.
Phase 2 consisted of advanced packing, cattle work, trucks, trailers, felling trees, loping, roping, driving, and farrier work. During this phase we were lucky enough to have Dr. Shannon Moreaux join us – an expert on equine science. Following this advanced training, the students headed out for a 10-day pack trip into the Beartooth Wilderness. As part of this phase, each student was expected to lead one day of the pack trip, which means that they were responsible for planning the route, handling all logistics, and managing livestock. As you can imagine, at this point in the game these guys are exhausted, and when we are exhausted and pushed to our brink that is when things really come to the surface – which is exactly what we want. This tends to be a pretty powerful turning point in this process, as this is often the moment where these students shed themselves of the labels that have been placed on them, stop making excuses, and lean into the challenges in front of them.
Once the Phase 2 pack trip is complete, the students return to basecamp, and then they prepare to head home for approximately 4 weeks before the initiation of Phase 3. My hope for them during this “break” is that they use this time to reflect, to make changes, and to stick to their commitments. Small goals equal big goals, as it’s what we do every single day that matters, not what we do once in a while.
Phase 3 has already begun for some, while others are waiting in anticipation for their orders. As part of Phase 3, the students are sent to work with outfitters in Alaska, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana and New Mexico. Their duties will cover everything from ranching, to packing, to running horses, to getting behind the chutes at national rodeo competitions. This part of the program really isn’t about the job itself, it’s more about creating space for them, away from their classmates and their families, to truly figure out what is that they want out of their life. Whether they decide to continue working for an outfitter, or they want to go work for Google, it’s all the same process.
I am incredibly proud of how this 2017 season has evolved, and I want to take a moment to thank all the amazing volunteers, donors and supporters that made this season possible. I know it has been said before, but it’s worth stating again – we would absolutely not be where we are without the selfless individuals that give their time and resources to ensuring that we make an impactful change in the lives of these veterans.
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