It’s late July and warm in the Little Horn Canyon. The riders have split up to keep the cow-calf pairs moving so they don’t get jammed up on the narrow trail that follows the Little Bighorn River, which briefly parallels the border of Montana in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains.
The trail is not for the faint of heart. Even with years of riding in the mountains under my belt, there are eroded sections that leave me looking skyward at the canyon wall, forced to trust that my mare will manage without slipping, sliding treacherously down the steep slope to the river. Thankfully, she is masterful in navigating this technical terrain. Still, we reach a stretch where we all dismount, allowing our horses to pick their way across a section of slick, slab rock without the burden of our weight.
Aaron McMihelk waits patiently on his horse. He is a Marine and is paralyzed from the waist down. Aaron’s 210-pound physique and character resemble each other—bullish. In true Marine fashion, there’s not much he can’t do and less he won’t do if he’s able. On this rare occasion, though, help is required.
It comes readily in the form of Mo Smith, a hulking 6’2”, 225-pound North Carolina cowboy and mentor for the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program. Having already guided his own horse across the rock, Mo returns on foot, works out a brief plan of attack with Aaron, and then hoists Aaron over his shoulder like a 50-pound feed sack, before carefully picking his way back across the slippery rocks. We onlookers breathe a noticeable sigh of relief when the men clear the terrain and get Aaron back on his horse. Mo voices only one complaint as he catches his breath and wipes the sweat from his brow: “His belt buckle was killing my shoulder.”
Acts of camaraderie are not unique among this group. But for the outsider I am on our first full day on trail, Mo’s valiant, yet humble act, coupled with Aaron’s proud fortitude, create the framework from which I’ll experience this six-day cattle drive with 13 of our wounded, ill, and injured veterans.
I was introduced to the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program (JMHP) when I interviewed its foreman, retired United States Marine Col. John Mayer, for the article, “Cowboy Cure,” published in the April/May 2015 issue of American Cowboy. The JMHP is one of many Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund programs, which offer services to all post-9/11 wounded, ill, and injured veterans. In particular, JMHP—named in honor of a four-time Purple Heart recipient and Marine colonel who guided Vietnam-era veterans on trail rides at Camp Pendleton—serves those men and women by getting them horseback and re-engaged in real mental, physical, and emotional challenges.
Under the leadership of the Colonel, the program operates throughout the year and starts by introducing participants to the basics of horsemanship through multi-day cow-working clinics, brandings, and mountain trail riding. Each of the clinics serves as a building block, so that by the time the participants arrive at camp for a six-day cattle drive that covers an average of 10 miles per day across varying mountain terrain, they are ready and willing.
The drive, which starts in Montana, at the foothills of the Bighorns, and ends in a high country camp above 9,000 feet and west of Sheridan, Wyo., is hosted by Double Rafter Cattle Drives, of Ranchester, Wyo. Dana Kerns, his wife, Alice, and their son, Taylor, are cattle ranchers, their heritage established when their ancestors homesteaded the land in 1887. Three or four times each year, the Kerns and their exceptional crew open their operations up to guests. For each of the past three years, one of those drives has been reserved for the JMHP. Like many modern-day ranchers, the financial challenges of running cattle had the Kerns looking for ways to diversify.
“At first it was for financial reasons,” Alice admits before breakfast one morning (which is usually cooked in a Dutch oven and always served hot), when asked how the Double Rafter came to be the hosting ranch for the JMHP. “But it has turned into so much more.”
“I didn’t know how going on a cattle drive would help them, to be honest,” Dana confesses, after riding high and low in search of pairs and moving them to a spring-fed water tank. “That first year, they were so tense.”
The program’s inaugural cattle drive happened under the guidance of a former director and lasted only three days.
“Now you can see them loosen up and laugh with each other and the crew,” Dana continues. He goes on to explain that he didn’t realize the sense of accomplishment the men and women in the group gained each day of the drive, with each new skill acquired, and each task completed.
Throughout the drive, I witness what Dana is referring to. First, these men and women—representing the Marines, the Army, the Navy, and the Air Force—thrive when given a mission: Move cows up the trail to water. They set off to perform their job with voracity. For the first two days, I feel like I’m in cattle drive boot camp. We holler. A lot. Cows, understandably, are everywhere, bellowing. By day three, we seem to wear ourselves thin. We’re no longer just yelling at the cows, but at each other. Though frustrating, it marks a significant shift in how the group approaches their task. Starting on day four, real communication and teamwork happen. The riders settle into their roles; they give clear direction to their horses; they begin to understand herd behavior in cattle. The herd moves in pairs, quietly. Days five and six are pure joy.
The weather is ideal. Endless blue skies canopy lush green parks with grass so tall I can reach down from my horse and brush my hand through it. It has been a good, wet spring in this corner of the world. Each time we break through the trees, a vast, big country panorama presents itself, and I marvel at this opportunity I’ve been given to ride this country.
Still, it is around the campfire, or over meals from the chuckwagon, or during a shady lunch break on the trail, where I am truly introduced to our veterans.
After our first night in camp, we awaken to the crew rounding up the horses shortly after dawn. Emerging from our canvas tents, we ask each other how everyone slept.
“I slept great,” I bubble with excitement. “Something about sleeping out here; I hit the pillow and I’m out.”
“I wish my life were that easy.”
The response is quiet and cuts me like a quick flick of a switchblade. Tisha Knickerbocker, also a Marine, is stuffing her sleeping bag into its sack. Her comment is a wake-up call in its truest form.
Among this group, sleep is elusive. Nightmares are not.
Many of these veterans performed multiple tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan and were immersed in the most violent and hostile battles the military engaged in. Medals earned by some for their valor and bravery are reminders of both the best days, full of camaraderie, excitement, and purpose, as well as the worst days of their lives—days when the real heroes made the ultimate sacrifice. Most suffer from combat trauma in the form of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), traumatic brain injuries (TBI), and various physical injuries. And many would happily join the military again, if they could.
Tom “Doc” Craig is active-duty Navy and is providing medical support on the drive. He was on patrol with the Marines in Afghanistan, literally pulling men from battle to save their lives.
“The military has a 98- or 99-percent survival rate,” he says, explaining the incredible ability of our military to recover and save its troops from the battlefield. “When they go to battle, they know they will probably live. They may be injured, but they will probably live. They are invincible.”
However, dealing with the complicated nuances of day-to-day civilian life lacks that same invincibility and, for many, coming home is harder than war.
Military service-members returning home from war are detached from the very people with whom they survived it. They are surrounded by people who care for them, love them, are proud of them, but, ultimately, weren’t there with them. This isolating shift, especially when combined with the traumas sustained in war, can result in feelings of immense anger, nightmares, flashbacks, anxiety, and even violence, and is often diagnosed as PTSD.
In this group, Bill Hersha, Marine Corps, was only able to go hunting upon his return home with a bow and arrow—handling his rifle caused flashbacks. Bert Blevins, Marine Corps, couldn’t enjoy holiday fireworks with his wife and twins—the booming reminded him of the mortar shell that “rung his bell” in Iraq. Joe Qualls, U.S. Army, was fearful of being triggered while holding his young son, lest he cause him unintentional harm. Jeremy Williams, Marine Corps, burdened by the guilt of following orders that may, or may not, have resulted in the death of a number of fellow Marines, drank.
And, of course, there is the greatest threat to the wellbeing of these veterans—suicide. Twenty-two American veterans kill themselves each day. It’s a devastating number.
“Any [combat] guys you talk to, who tell you they haven’t contemplated suicide … they’re lying,” asserts Chris Lowe, Marine Corps, who provided security for the Explosive Ordinance Disposal during Operation Phantom Fury in Fallujah, Iraq, in 2004. He spent 2005 in Iraq, as well, followed by service in Africa, India, El Salvador, and Columbia, until 2010, when he was finally diagnosed with PTSD, after years of suffering from sleep deprivation, flashbacks, and increased anxiety and anger, not to mention physical injuries that have led to multiple surgeries.
Chris has been attending JMHP clinics since they began in 2011 and attributes the program with saving his life. In the wake of coming home, he had taken to drinking about a bottle of vodka a day, and it was getting him in very real legal trouble.
“When Chris joined the program, it wasn’t therapy,” Mo recalls. “It was damage control.”
“Being a Marine commander for 33 years,” the Colonel proclaims, “I’ve seen alcohol defeat more American men and women than the Taliban and any terrorists combined.”
Of his own drinking habits, Chris says, “I thought it would relieve the pain and anxiety. I was looking for an escape route and I never could find it except for the Jinx McCain program. That’s really been the ultimate life saver.”
Remembering the first event, a cutting clinic, he says, “It was the best time of my life. Dealing with all that stress and physical stuff, there wasn’t a time when I was there that [the pain and anxiety] came to mind. The only thing I was focused on was myself and the horse and trying to figure out what I gotta do.”
For Alexander Monaghan, the program has not only saved his life, but it has given him a new and promising direction. After serving in Iraq in 2006 and 2007, Alexander then served with the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines in Now Zad, Afghanistan, in 2007 and 2008. In September, the New York Times published a remarkable article about this unit and the alarming rate at which its members are committing suicide.
Of the men discussed in the article, Alexander says, “They were my friends. We did everything together. Most of us went to bootcamp together.”
Alexander got out of the military in 2009 and spent the next many years involved in substance abuse and bad relationships. Anger was a constant and he was growing increasingly bitter about his failed attempts to go back to school and find meaningful work.
“I was so used to everything kind of going the hard way and not working out. It was just the path I was given and I was just trying to survive it.”
But like that trail up the canyon, Alexander’s path had some truly scary spots.
“In March of 2014, I was going to be another statistic.”
Thankfully, he instead checked himself into the Topeka VA Medical Center, and through his counselor, eventually found the JMHP. This past spring, Mo drove to Kansas and introduced Alexander to renowned cutter, Dirk Blakesley, who hosted the two men for a week, letting them ride his horses and help out around the ranch.
“After just an hour on the horse,” Alexander explains of his first-ever riding experience, “I was already attempting to cut cattle.”
By the time the cattle drive rolled around, just a few months later, Alexander had participated in a number of JMHP events. He looked easy in the saddle and unnerved by the terrain, even managing the task of riding a horse that had been giving another veteran trouble, without complaint.
Also in that short amount of time, Alexander had already attended Carl Chappell’s bootmaking seminar and was lined up to apprentice with bootmaker Dew Westover of Vernon, Texas, for a month after the drive. Having never considered a career in bootmaking prior to this spring, Alexander is taking advantage of a new arm of the Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund, the Apprenticeship to Employment & Entrepreneurship (A2E2) Program, also directed by Col. Mayer.
“A2E2 focuses on wounded warriors, especially those with PTSD and TBI, that just don’t fit in with typical corporate or career fields,” the Colonel explains. “We help them get into trades … through short-term vocational training and apprenticeships with top makers in their respective industries.”
Craftsmen in the Western industry have heeded the call, and A2E2 apprenticeships are available in boot, saddle, and hat making; gun and blade smithing; horse training; and rawhide braiding, just to name a few. In truth, the possibilities are endless and if a warrior can dream it, chances are good the Colonel can find a way to make it happen.
The goal here isn’t simply to give a vet a hobby. In the proverbial tradition of teaching a man to fish, Col. Mayer is outfitting A2E2 participants with the entrepreneurial know-how to live a successful and rewarding civilian life.
For Alexander, he’s tackling his new endeavor one step at a time, and is acquiring his equipment with the help of Chappell, Westover, and the Semper Fi Fund, but hopes to be operating his own bootmaking business in a few months.
“It’s all been possible through the Semper Fi Fund,” Alexander says. “And once I complete all this and show that this is possible and veterans are capable, I’m hoping they can start sending more veterans to these programs.”
“We’re not broken.”
Jeremy Williams is talking to me about his frustration with the common dialogue surrounding military veterans. And he’s right. Jeremy is gainfully employed, a published writer, and a loving father, who was named the 2014–2015 Bush School Merit Scholarship Recipient at the George H.W. Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University. On the cattle drive, he’s also the recipient of the Cowboy Spirit Award. He’s being recognized on this last night, as we sit around the campfire, for his willingness to apply himself to the task at hand, and doing so with enthusiasm and integrity.
Bert Blevins receives the Most Gung-Ho Award for his increasingly tenacious ability to be wherever he was needed, and assisting whomever in whatever the task at hand called for. When not riding with the JMHP, Bert is pursuing a career as a farrier.
As for the Top Hand, that title has been earned by Joe Qualls—also an A2E2 participant who is starting horses with California trainer Jim Snell—for his tireless commitment to the task, along with his steady leadership on the trail, and his persistent confidence in the saddle, even when it didn’t come easily. In his acceptance speech, Joe reveals that he arrived on the drive wanting the Top Hand buckle. But he goes on to say, “I think we all understand that really, we hope we’re worthy of the buckle, because, to be worthy is a special thing.”
The men and women of the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program are not broken. Indeed, some carry incredible burdens. But who among us is free of burdens? We ride anyway. And so do they.
On a six-day trail in Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains that took us through rocky canyons, grassy parks, and high timber, I watched wounded warriors and combat veterans become cowboys. And as the Colonel says, “They’ll do to ride the river with.”
(To see more images from the drive, click the link to our photo gallery).
Semper Fi Fund
Supporting JMHP and A2E2
Col. John Mayeris on a constant mission to find industry professionals who are willing to share their craft with program participants. He is also on the hunt for Western ranchland on which veterans could acquire skills through experience to build successful careers in the agricultural community.
“This warrior ranch would be a place to overcome their demons and regain their purpose in life. All I need is a chunk of land—the more rugged the better, as it builds character—quality breeding stock and ranch horses, and a campfire. Campfires have a magic that brings out their stories, helps discover the truth, and hopefully sets them free.”
The Western community embraces the Jinx McCain Horsemanship Program…
Clint Mortenson @ Mortenson Silver and Saddle
Santa Fe, N.M.
Since the program began in 2011, Clint has been providing trophy belt buckles to the winners of the Top Hand and Most Gung-Ho awards, making the buckles a highly coveted treasure among the JMHP participants.
Bruce King @ King’s Saddlery / King Ropes
At the request of the Double Rafter’s Dana Kerns, Bruce outfitted each of the JMHP crewmembers with ropes. The donation was a no-brainer for Bruce. “I was in the service,” he stated, “and I know what it’s like to be away from family. And it ain’t easy.”
The poet laureate of cowboys himself arrived in camp on the last night of the cattle drive to regale this now trail-savvy audience with Western wisdom and wisecracks. A Vietnam veteran, Waddie was eager to contribute to the program. “Giving your life for your country seems like a normal and righteous term, but giving your life for your country when you come home … it isn’t right”
Doug Roberts @ Association for Independent Oil Distributors
Having read “Cowboy Cure” in our April/May issue, Doug contacted the Colonel asking how he could help. Through his efforts, Doug was able to connect the program with Waddie Mitchell, Matt Palmer, and Trajan Vieira. Also joining us around the last campfire in our high country camp, Doug presented a donation from the Association for Independent Oil Distributors in the amount of $20,000 to the Semper Fi Fund and America’s Fund for the JMHP.
This story covers a 6-day cattle drive, but the fun continued in Cheyenne, Wyo., thanks to the generous hospitality of BP America at the 2015 Cheyenne Frontier Days. As guests of BP, JMHP participants rode on a parade float, enjoyed a day at the largest outdoor rodeo from the BP box, and were treated to performances by country-music greats, John Anderson and Keith Urban.