Heroes and Horses – A Navy SEAL’s Mission to Help Other Combat Veterans Find Their New Purpose
He may have left the battlefield, but this Navy SEAL has never stopped fighting. Micah Fink first waged his own inner battle to adjust to civilian life after combat, then turned his sights to helping others.
It is only recently that there has been an upswing of concern and recognition for our military and their families. Today we recognize the very real truth behind their torment and are now attempting to atone for decades of apathy.
It seems as if every week another organization pops up, pledging its support to our veterans and their families. Many of these organizations do indeed provide a welcome respite from the struggle to assimilate into a society that can never truly understand.
Weekend getaways to hunting camps or mountain climbing trips abound for the adventurous veterans or widows. Spa days and galas are offered to those in search of a less sweaty escape. Therapeutic retreats and clinics incorporate a blend of both, often adding trained mental health professionals to offer counseling, treatment, and a safe place for veterans and their families to decompress, perhaps even begin the process of healing from their trauma.
There is no doubt that these organizations impact people. Whether honoring a family member or battle buddy who fell, sending birthday love to bereaved children, offering 24-hour crisis counselors, or any of the numerous acts of kindness, these organizations are welcomed, appreciated, and important.
Of special note are the Vietnam veterans who are often found within these organizations, for they suffered the most egregiously of all – vilified rather than respected – and yet they come forward now not in anger, but to ensure this generation never suffers as they have.
It would seem as though with so many people doing their very best to help, our veterans should be at peace, resting warmly in the embrace of a newly-awakened America.
So why do we still lose so many of our combat veterans to suicide?
Why do so many of our warriors descend into a dark world of drugs and despair?
Why do we see homeless veterans on park benches, and why do so many of these families dissolve under the pressure of adapting to the return of a parent or child who may look the same but hides a deadly secret?
Micah Fink knows exactly why, and this former Navy SEAL is doing everything he can to reverse the trend.
Ten years as a Navy SEAL followed by four years of paramilitary service more than qualifies Micah to speak on the plight of our combat veterans. He has seen friends die. He has done things to survive and fight and defend our country, things that have the potential to forever be seared into the forefront of his memory and his life. He knows exactly what it’s like to come home from these deployments; what people expect him to do or be, and he knows he can never comply with those expectations. He heard the same call of despair so many other veterans do as the frustration, stress, and pressure collided inside, even as he made sure no one else knew. He recognized his new enemy was not before him but within him, and he chose to fight it.
Faced with a decision on how to spend some downtime, Micah stepped up his own battle plan. He headed straight for the jungle in Brazil. There he spent about six weeks on the river with an Indian guide, living off the land and staying in villages. “That was a big turning point in my life,” he says. He rarely spoke. He hunted for his food in the midst of other predators. Jungle rot, mosquitos, and cougars became his new enemies, gradually diminishing the strength of the enemy within. He joked about that jungle journey, his smile flashing from beneath his beard, cowboy hat bobbing with his head as he laughed about the insanity of it all before shifting instantly back to his mission face and focus, to explain how that experience changed things for him.
“I came back and really wasn’t thinking much about my (combat) experiences. Was just thinking about that experience and it kind of became the new normal.” That ties into one point on the trinity behind Heroes and Horses: Struggle gives things value.
Micah realized the profound impact his time in the jungle had on his ability to outwit his enemy within. He knew that if it worked for him it could work for other veterans struggling against their own internal enemies. The question was – how was he going to make that happen? Brazil had served him well, but was not the only venue that could work. This New York native decided on Montana, choosing to substitute mountains for jungles.
Turns out he made just as good a cowboy as a Navy SEAL.
Micah discovered his aptitude for the cowboy life on a trip to Montana. There, he was introduced to the idea of how horses could help heal people, and Heroes and Horses was born.
“It’s not a vacation,” veterans are warned. Those who make it through the rigorous selection process will not be pampered, wined, or dined. Rather, they will be pushed beyond their limits, spend days in the saddle and nights on the ground, live off the land, take meticulous care of their horses, and learn to look within themselves for the answers and strength they need to overcome the challenges before them.
“We all possess the answers we are looking for,” Micah insists. “The most difficult thing you will ever do in life is look inside for answers – not out. Struggle gives things in life value. Period.”
The three phased reintegration process of the Heroes and Horses Program is intense, demanding, difficult, and beautiful. Its holy trinity of beliefs is:
- People change only two ways: pressure and time.
- It’s purpose that allows you to overcome your external circumstances.
- It’s struggle that gives things value.
This belief system is demonstrated to the veterans before even setting foot in Montana. The screening process is so thorough and specific that only 16 out of 154 applicants were accepted last year. Micah is not afraid to ask direct questions or dish out tough answers. He doesn’t pretend not to know that many applicants will be abusing some form of drug, and he doesn’t disqualify anyone based on an addiction. He simply makes it clear that non-prescription drugs are not tolerated in this program, and uses his intuition to seek out only those applicants he believes are committed to the process. Because while a prevailing component of the program is horses and their care, the program itself, “,,. is not about making cowboys or horsemen. It’s a program where pressure gradually peels back the layers to who they are,” and this program is not stingy with pressure.
By the time the third phase has been completed, veterans will have ridden 400 miles through stunning yet isolated land. They will have received intensive training in horsemanship and wilderness survival, and that training will be tested in extreme conditions. Finally, they will be matched with a wildlife outfitter- far away from Heroes and Horses- and work for that company. This allows the veterans to experience the process of getting a job and getting back into the workplace. It can break a person or it can change their life. The latter, says Micah, is what he has mostly seen happen.
At some point, each participant reaches the moment where they have to determine for themselves how to behave. Do they quit? Do they get mad? Or do they decide to take charge of their environment, to adapt to it and use their own resources to mold that environment to them? It’s a beautiful moment, Micah says, when you see that transformation take place. But they have to want it to happen enough to work for it, or the transformation will only be temporary.
“Veterans aren’t victims,” he points out.
He sees value in vacation-like experiences for vacation purposes, but believes that to truly help a veteran who is ensnared in the grips of PTSD, depression, and stuck in the dead-end life of replaying combat experiences in their mind until that is the only identity they have, you must do everything to them that they are running from. You must not shield them from real-life experiences.
Don’t like loud noises? Complain to someone else. “I don’t care if you don’t like loud noises. I don’t like loud noises! But you know what? To live in a world where there are no loud noises- Don’t exist, Buddy!”
Micah identifies with common triggers veterans have and he will pull every single one, as many times as it takes, until that veteran realizes that he* has the ability to choose for himself how he will respond to pressure. This combination of pressure and struggle in intense situations is what allows them to learn about themselves. This country “stopped doing that for veterans so all they know is the previous experience.”
When a veteran is over-served with charitable donations or experiences designed to provide temporary happiness, all those good intentions can in fact create a dangerous, damaging impact on that veteran. By extending an environment that nurtures the instinct to avoid further harm- that allows or encourages the veteran to fixate on those past experiences, to shape his entire identity around those – we can make it more difficult for that veteran to do the very thing he needs to do, in order to grow forward. Micah explains the veteran’s challenge “We want to live in those experiences because growing forward and finding out who we are is hard to do. “ It’s instinct to avoid pain rather than confront it. It’s easier to look to the outside world for answers than to look within ourselves. But until a combat veteran – or anyone struggling to move past traumatic experiences – learns to do just that, they will never move forward. Many will only fall deeper into that abyss. Rather than talk about all of that with veterans, Micah shows them.
His tough-love approach is not borne out of a sadistic pleasure. He is not seeking to hurt or belittle them. He has no desire to diminish their previous experiences. He seeks only to help them shift their focus from the external factors of their life, to the internal ones. Rather than allow them to stay stuck in their memories, he takes then to a new environment that has nothing to do with their lives or experiences. He helps them create new memories of confronting extreme pressure with the end result of conquering that pressure. Rather than hide from the pain or the fear by abusing medications or alcohol, rather than allowing the pressure to build until they explode in rage or escape through suicide, Micah shows them how to access the ability to overcome that which threatens to destroy them. “It’s a process about fundamentally changing the approach that people have to life. That is what really transforms their lives.”
The process starts with building trust, which is often another casualty of combat. To help the veterans remember how to trust and how to be trusted, Micah relies on the experience of those who graduated from the other half of Heroes and Horses – mustangs.
Wild mustangs understand what it’s like to be confronted with their worst fears and how to adjust to change. They have run free their entire lives. They fight for their survival. They tend to their own wounds. Weakness means defeat or death. They do not trust people and they are terrified of pretty much everything people do. Loud noises, sudden movements, new expectations, pressure to perform – a wild mustang will fight or flee these enemies with a ferocious commitment to escape or defeat them. Even the most serene looking horse can be full of fear or rage which can turn lethal. “They’re beautiful,” Micah knows, “But they have a black belt in horse jiu-jitsu.”
Long before any of the veterans get near any of the mustangs, the wild horses will have been ridden 500 miles or more. They will have experienced the equine version of Micah’s program. He will use the same no-coddle approach with them, with the same sincere intentions, and witness the same results. He will not flinch in the face of their threats or displays of rage. He will instead quietly and calmly stand his ground until each horse learns he is not a threat. He will confidently approach fearful horses until their fear is replaced by curiosity. And he will pull their triggers as many times as it takes until their response to a perceived threat or something scary changes from dangerous to trustful. Just like with the veterans, he will not avoid an action simply because it scares or angers the horse- that wouldn’t be real, and would polarize their destructive behavior, rather than change it. When the horses have completed their training, they will use their new knowledge to help the veterans.
“There is something about the outside of a horse, that is good for the inside of a man.” Winston Churchill may be credited with saying this, but Micah Fink ran away with it.
Micah assesses each veteran and each horse with equal scrutiny. As horses are reactive animals, their behavior can change in accordance with the person they are matched with. They feel the energy of the person and their own energy moves with it. They also have their own personalities and, like people, some are more laid back than others while some are almost always ready to pop. Micah takes great care to make suitable matches, teaming the angriest veterans with the most tranquil horses.
The getting-to-know-you- phase is very telling. Veterans get to see their own energy mirrored in their horses. They learn to recognize the effect their energy has on others. They have to learn to change their behavior in order to effectively communicate and build trust with the horse they will be relying on in intense situations. They connect with these horses in a way that helps them change their lives.
The veterans and the horses work together to find their purpose. Every veteran who successfully completes the Heroes and Horses program returns home with that purpose in their lives. “A job is what you do. A purpose is who you are,” and unless veterans are pushed to find a purpose outside of combat, they cannot break free from their past.
Heroes and Horses is still in its infancy.
Micah has plans for it that would seem like overreaching for others, but merely a day’s work for this Combat Cowboy. He continues to fight the war most of us never see, refusing to give up on this generation of veterans. “My generation of veterans is becoming lost, becoming a subculture of PTSD and drugs when we have the ability to become leaders of this nation.” The passion and purpose in his voice is impossible to miss when Micah speaks about this. He plans to grow his program to include female veterans. Ten- day team building programs for families is also boldly written on his to-do list. There is much to be done before these plans can take shape: Currently, a local ranch donates its space for Heroes and Horses to use. This extraordinary generosity is crucial and appreciated, but Micah knows Heroes and Horses needs its own ranch. It will not be easy but he is determined to make it happen, because he knows the need is strong and will continue growing.
He knows statistics, like having lost 110,000 veterans to suicide since 9/11. He knows there are over 60 thousand non-profits in North America, both government and non-government, with a combined annual budget of 7 billion dollars. And yet, a study he just read posited that it is an average of two years after returning home from combat, that veterans tend to crash. Homelessness, drug use, suicide- all skyrocketing. Why?
“The process in place for veterans today actually exacerbates the problem. “More organizations need to help teach veterans how to help themselves, rather than pamper them.
Heroes and Horses is filling the need. They are addressing the truth behind those numbers as if the veterans’ lives depend on it- because they do.
If you think Heroes and Horses is as extraordinary as we do, please take a moment to visit their Facebook page or their website to learn more about them. There are lots of ways you can get involved and help right from your home – starting with simply commenting on and sharing this story.
*We know there are many women who serve, too. We used “he” in this article because to date, mostly men have come through this program
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