BULL VALLEY – When Marine veteran Rick Gil returned from Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, he tried to find his place in civilian life. He was looking for a home with other vets that could relate to what he had experienced “over there” as well as the difficulty of re-entering a life that moves at a slower pace and doesn’t present the constant threat war does.
“I compare it to if you take a feral cat and throw them into a domestic situation. You’re saying ‘here, adapt,’ ” Gil said. “That’s how we feel as veterans. We’re feral. How do you turn off the switch of war?”
Gil didn’t find solace amongst the crowd at his local V.F.W. but rather atop a mustang horse named Socks. The McHenry resident is head rider for Veterans R&R Operation Wild Horse program.
The nonprofit program is based out of the Bull Valley Equestrian Center and provides veterans and active duty military the opportunity to experience the healing effects of wild mustangs to overcome trauma they have experienced as a result of the service they gave to our country. Riders participate in parades and community events.
Woodstock resident Patti Gruber is the manager of the Bull Valley Equestrian Center and program director for Operation Wild Horse. Gruber started the program out of her facility as a response to her experience with military family members.
“Both of my grandfathers were in the military. One was a Navy machinist and the other was a Marine captured on Wake Island as a POW,” Gruber said. “My family grew up eating, sleeping and breathing someone with PTSD. At the time, it was called shell shock. I wanted to be able to give back. I knew I wouldn’t be able to do what I love had it not been for the sacrifices our military makes.”
Gruber holds camp from 8 to 10 a.m. every Saturday during which veterans and active military can come and ride or simply be present. Participants from all military branches gather, have a little breakfast, discuss upcoming events and swap ideas and then head to the arena.
“They can participate as much or as little as they want,” Gruber said. “No one is required to get on a horse.”
Gruber said the environment gives them a place to go that’s not based around going and having a drink with your buddies. It’s a healthy and peaceful environment. The horses aren’t judgmental and everyone around you can relate to your experience to an extent.
“The bond between a mustang and a vet is magical,” Gruber said. “Mustangs are naturally fight or flight animals which is what military is taught in their training. Stand and fight or get into a safer situation. On an organic level, mustangs and military members understand each other. When they bond with the vets, they truly create a partnership and the horses take them in as one of their heard. They take care of them and protect them. Some of the sort of stressful situations we put them in – parades and shows – the veterans reach down and give them a pat to tell them it’s okay. It’s magical to see the relationship build and then go out in public and see the horses become one with their riders.”
Gil started attending the camps after a veteran came into his place of work looking for riders.
“I showed up and was really open-minded. I wasn’t sure of the true purpose of the program but Patti explained it was to help vets with PTSD and to try to prevent veteran suicide,” Gil said. “Prior to that, I had lost two fellow Marines to the demons. I can’t say I came back normal. I don’t think any veteran comes back normal. With a mustang, it’s how you react and the groundwork to what they do. As a veteran, that gives me a huge purpose. Those horses can read you and feel what you feel. It’s just amazing.”
Gil said another of the veteran participants likened it to the movie, “The Green Mile,” in that the horses whatever is in them out to pasture and runs it out for them. Gil said he could relate and knows that the riding is something that has had positive effects on him.
“My wife says she can tell when I ride and when I don’t. She’ll say ‘I can tell you were at the barn last night. You’re in a great mood today,’ ” Gil said.
Gruber said she knows the importance of the program and what it does for those who participate, but it comes with its challenges. The program is funded completely through donations and fundraising, each mustang coming with a $10,000 price tag, per year, to feed and board. The program currently has nine horses.
On Oct. 20, a Hootenanny will take place at Beyond Stable Farm in Woodstock to benefit the Veterans R&R Wild Horse program. The event will include food trucks, raffles and silent and live auctions, an African safari on the list of prizes. Stateline Country Band also will perform.
Through fundraisers and help from community businesses, the Operation Wild Horse program is entering its third year. Gil said the program is something that needs to continue, for the sake of his brothers and sisters in arms and their families.
“It really opened me up and made me a better talker. It made people understand what my demons were when I got back. The whole veteran suicide did go through my head and I thank my lucky stars I found this and I’m here today,” Gil said.
Outside of the program, Gil said he does what he can to keep busy, whether it be working on fixing up the riding arena through donations from The Home Depot in McHenry or making hand-painted American flags from recycled wooden crates with fellow Marine veteran Paul Frapolly. The two use 100 percent of the profits from what Gil calls the “battle-hardened” flags to sponsor more horses. A 12-foot flat will be on display at Beyond Stable Farms.
“They’re made out of recycled material, just like myself,” Gil said. “We’re veterans. We’re recycled. And this gives me a sense of purpose. Most people don’t understand that veterans need a purpose. When we don’t have a purpose, that’s when we start having those bad thoughts. I’m lucky to have found some purpose.”
Veterans R&R Wild Horse Hootenanny
Date: Saturday, October 20, 2018
Time: 6pm to 12am
Location: Beyond Stable Farm, 11129 Route 176, Woodstock, IL
Tickets: $10 at the door