The War Horse Project of NW Florida

A few weeks ago I attended the Veterans Memorial Clean Up Day with my son. He had volunteered with approximately a dozen other cadets from his JROTC unit. I simply asked if I could take pictures to practice my photography, having no idea the amazing people I would meet from behind the lens of my camera.

I had no idea what that one simple gesture would bring forth. All I wanted to do was take pictures of the kids and practice shooting.

And God turns a selfish motive into a way I can give back.

In recent weeks I have been able to photograph several other events that have taken place at Veterans Memorial Park, Pensacola.

. . . meeting the family of Corporal Spears who received the Purple Heart, knowing the ultimate sacrifice given – the delivery and installation of the Gold Star Families Memorial Monument – it simply ripped my heart up y’all, and taking pictures at the horse farm that is being used to help Veterans with PTSD . . .

It has just been amazing.

What I’ve witnessed through the honoring of lost lives is a respect and bond between others unlike anything I’ve witnessed before . . .

The respect these Veterans have for one another – even while retired through different branches – speaks volumes to the core.

I first met Sean Hollonbeck, US Army, (Retired) at the clean up day at the park. He shared of his vision and passion on using equines for treating PTSD in Veterans. In 2009 suicides among the Veterans was on the rise. He saw the need to just be able to talk. Sean began visiting the stables in 2009, by 2013 he started working with Veterans on two acres in Walton County independently, and by 2017 he was purchasing 30 acres of thick wooded land in Santa Rosa County to move the project to a larger area more suitable for reaching Veterans. It has taken years to clear the woods enough to even begin planting grass.

A few weeks later I was asked to take pictures of the horse farm for an article being written in the AHero magazine about the project.

The farm has been impacted with two hurricanes coming through the panhandle, leaving the grounds mushy and all the hard work of laying grass seed washed away, as well as having trees down.

There was and is already a lot of work to do, now it’s clean up the mess on top of day to day responsibilities.

Because of the most recent hurricane, the farrier had to reschedule his visit to the farm and just happened to be there the first day I arrived for photos. I watched Ronnie Brown work and handle these massive animals like putty in his hands. Not only did these animals trust their handler, they also trusted the one working on their hooves. I was amazed at the connection between them.

While Sean apologized profusely for the mush and things being in disarray . . . for the things beyond his control, I saw a great opportunity to share the behind the scenes of taking care of a farm, horse care, and what it takes to start a project like this – I saw real life.

I see beauty unfolding.

I see a work in progress.

I see potential.

I see hard work and sacrifice.

I see dedication.

I see monetary commitment to a cause.

I see heart and passion.

I see the burden and trauma a Veteran walks in the farm carrying . . . messiness behind the scenes we try to hide . . . and the potential of wellness and healing that will take place with a little hard work and dedication.

It’s heavy.

It’s freeing.

Decisions have to be made . . .

It takes courage.

It takes being vulnerable.

Which path do you take . . . the path of staying stuck in the muck and mire or the path of freedom?

Sean’s passion . . . his burden . . . is to help Veterans walk the path of freedom from “PTS”.

While walking about, he pointed out a tree. It’s top was broken off. It was covered in vines.

It was weighed down.

Then he pointed out how they cleared out around the other trees. How the trees without the heaviness . . . the ones not being weighed down . . . we’re reaching greater heights and producing beautiful foliage.

The tree covered in overgrown vines is heavy and broken – that’s what PTSD does to our Veterans. They can’t reach their full potential. I want to help them reach their full potential. (paraphrased)

What brought Sean to this place of giving of his time, talent, and resources?

At a young age, he experienced his first trauma when his twin brother was ran over and paralyzed by a drunk driver in front of their own home. In those moments he shared how powerless he felt not being able to do something to help. He knew at thar young age he wanted to be a life changer and give back. That burden continued to grow as he served in the war zones taking care of the wounded . . . not only his own men and women that were wounded but the enemy as well.

Simply put, it’s impossible to unsee what the eyes have seen.

You can read about that experience and the Colonel’s impressive years of service in an article written here: Reflections of a Military Doctor.

I’ve really struggled with the words through this entire post . . . I haven’t been sure what to say or not to say, feeling inferior to share because of lack of knowledge and afraid I will say something incorrectly, but since witnessing the transformation of one. . . once I actually SAW the transitioning from fear to confidence before my eyes in my own daughter, I had to put my insecurities and fear of saying the wrong thing aside and simply be okay with sharing my heart.

I’ve visited the farm three times in recent weeks, needing different shots for the magazine article, but this last trip over I took my severe social anxiety daughter with me.

I had prepared her for three people to be there plus me and her.

There were four plus the two of us.

She felt overwhelmed and wanted to leave.

I couldn’t take a step without her taking a step behind me.

There was no way I would be able to get the images I needed with her nestled up behind me.

At some point she was asked to hold on to a horse, Gypsy, which allowed me the opportunity to step away and get the photos I needed.

What I witnessed was my daughter, that wanted to leave, wanted to hide . . . become relaxed and soothed by the horse’s presence.

In a mere forty-five minutes of time she went from clinching her fist and wringing her hands, to this.

Relaxed. Calm. Soothing.

I witness the change before my eyes.

It was a beautiful transformation.

The War Horse Project is currently operating on a part time basis, with individual appointments as the scheduling permits.

The needs are great for this project.

Grant writers are needed.

Volunteers to help clear the land are needed.

The horses need grooming.

Grass seed needs to be spread.

Donations are needed.

And the list goes on.

Below is the contact information to volunteer. You won’t regret it.

Please pray about doing your part and giving back to a life changing program for our Veterans.

Sean retired as a highly decorated Colonel after thirty-one years of active duty in the US Army. He continues to serve . . . to give back . . . to our great county by now working with and serving Veterans in the medical field.

Sean, we are thankful for your service.

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