Veteran battling suicidal thoughts opens horse ranch to help military families

(CNN) — October in Georgia is when summer finally gives way to fall and the atmosphere paces itself like a perfectly curated air conditioner. One recent Saturday morning, on a rural property in Fortson, the sound of children laughing and playing could be heard between the occasional horse’s neigh.

Inside the property’s barn, however, owner Sam Rhodes is lost in thought. He quietly points to a plaque on one of the stall doors. It’s a small memorial to one of the soldiers who helped Sam on the ranch.

“He was helping me for two years,” he said.

Sadly, that soldier’s story ended like far too many people Rhodes has known over the years – in suicide.

It’s a reminder of why Rhodes started this ranch and why he devotes all of his free time to it.

Digging out of the trenches

Rhodes joined the army in 1980 and served for 29 years. He deployed on three combat tours during Operation Iraqi Freedom and rose through the ranks, retiring as command sergeant major.

Rhodes experienced a lot of trauma.

“Seeing a soldier bleeding on you or trying to fight for his life…” Rhodes slowly recalled. “There’s a lot of reasons that we can’t sleep at night.”

Rhodes was proud to serve and fight for his country, but when he came back home between tours, he realized something wasn’t right.

“I wanted to go back to war so bad so I can be back in my safety zone. I’d love to be in Iraq right now because I’m good there.”

He had trouble sleeping and re-adjusting. He even began tying himself to his bed at night to prevent sleepwalking.

“Most veterans would tell you right now, you put them in combat and let them do their thing, they are good to go. I didn’t want to be here. I wanted to go back.”

In 2005, Rhodes was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress. Eventually, his condition led to suicidal thoughts.

“I had a gun. I was getting ready to take my own life.”

He received counseling but Rhodes credits something else for the change in his disposition — his stepdaughter’s horse.

“Cleaning stalls, putting up fences, it made me feel like I had a purpose in life. It’s amazing how it really got me to calm down a little bit.”

“My natural instinct is to say, ‘How can I take what I just learned and help other people?’ ”

Riding for a cause

In 2008, Rhodes started building out his horse ranch and created Warrior Outreach, a non-profit that provides free access to horses for veterans and their families.

Vets and their families can come here to learn to ride and groom horses, host kids’ birthday parties or just get a moment of solitude on the ranch trails.

“It started as an idea to get people exposed to horses and get them to understand just how much it helps.”

Horses have been used for other therapeutic reasons. They’ve helped people with spinal cord injuries and autism.

For Rhodes, caring for the ranch and its 17 horses has helped keep his mind busy.

“I want structure. I want a routine. I had that in combat.”

But it hasn’t cured him.

“I still have depression. Life’s not easy.”

Perhaps the biggest thing Warrior Outreach has provided Rhodes and the others vets is a sense of community.

Michael Christensen, Sergeant 1st Class in the US Army, first came here for a kid’s birthday party. Now, he volunteers around the ranch and brings his own children to ride.

“Guys can come out here, especially if they are having a rough go at it, and just kind of forget about what’s going on in the real world. The fact that we can network and just say, ‘Anytime you need something, here’s my number, call me.’ It builds a network of veterans that can help each other,” Christensen said.

Rhodes has expanded Warrior Outreach’s work beyond the ranch. They’ve already completed 38 home assistance repairs for veterans and their families this year.

All of it fueled by donations and volunteer work.

Rhodes, who still works full time, says he can’t imagine life now without the Warrior Outreach ranch.

“I think that’s what’s keeping me going.  This is my counselor, all these families.”

He’s made it his mission to bring as many other vets and their families to the ranch as possible because he’s seen what a difference it can make.

“Vets come out here and say, ‘Hey, you saved my life.’ It’s well worth it.”