It was 2011 when Dennis, my combat Vietnam Veteran, who spent 14 months in country, learned so much at Flag is Up Farms. At the time, we’d been married for 33 years and, I confess, I wanted to slap the guy who said leave no man behind.
In 2008 along with all the other dysfunction carried by my best friend, I left for about 3 months, as I was the constant target of friendly fire! By the grace of God, and the fact, we both wanted to find our way, we did make it through that heartbreaking and painful time of growing.
Carrying a VA diagnosis of 100% unemployability and post-traumatic stress injury, Dennis would shut down when the phone rang, or a knock came at the door. When we first met, unless he had consumed a few drinks, he could and would go hours without communicating anything but his pain, and frustration.
Fast forward to 2011, and through absolute synchronicity, we found ourselves involved with the world-famous Horse Whisperer Mr. Monty Roberts and his wife Pat. Unbeknownst to us, Monty was a survivor of a very abusive childhood that prepared him to have compassion and empathy for those who were still stuck in their trauma.
Heading to a very special clinic, known as Horse Sense and Healing, the ONLY reason Dennis agreed to go was that there was a younger veteran named Joshua, from our town, and he was a younger veteran struggling with so very much. So being the pure heart that made me fall in love with him, Dennis announced, “I will go for Joshua, BUT I AM FINE!”
Arriving at Flag is Up Farms, which felt like an amazing sanctuary, I walked past a very wounded warrior named Vanessa. “Welcome HOME!” I said. And for about 5 minutes, I was told off, f-bombed, and that she was a ticking time bomb. While drawing my outstretched hand back to my side, I said, “Well, you’re in the right place,” and kept walking.
Vanessa had suffered not only the trauma of being a Vietnam Veteran but also had suffered SEXUAL MILITARY TRAUMA, at the hands of her fellow veterans, a horrific betrayal of trust. To be betrayed by your own brothers had left her trapped in our home, unable to do more than buy groceries, and see a shrink, for over 30 years, if I remember rightly.
Arriving at the classroom, this gentle soul, Monty, who had also been completely betrayed by those closest to him, shared a little about his background. Doctors discovered during an x-ray, that Monte had 72 broken bones that all occurred pre-puberty. As a teenager, instead of becoming a victim, thanks to the influence of an amazing woman at his Catholic school, he made the choice not, to murder his own father, the perpetrator of this horrendous childhood.
You never know how the wounds you carried for a season can become beauty for ashes and inspire others not to give up. The classroom setting in this breathtaking place was simple, open, and inviting. Acknowledging that like flight fright animals, Veterans, first responders, and victims of violence carry many of the same exact issues and fears, the goal in just three days was to bring change to the endless cycle of pain that these heroes carried.
Leaving the doors open, Monty invited anyone to leave at any time they needed or wanted to. Some who sat in the classroom with their black sunglasses on, chair firmly planted against the wall, so that no one could get behind them, were welcomed to be just as they were. So after sharing his own journey, and how he had led quite a fulfilled life, it was time to head to the round pen for his signature discovery, Join-Up!
It did not matter if you had NEVER been around a horse or liked them. But they are so incredibly sensitive, they can read your intent up to a quarter of a mile away! They react to what is going on inside of you and I could not believe what I saw. After Monty demonstrated the 5-minute exercise he wanted the Veterans to do, when it was their turn, I watched miracles and could not believe what I was seeing.
Along with my own husband, Dennis, who was learning that trauma had left him a communications mess, I was curious to see what would happen with Vanessa and the others. The people I saw, who had never done this exercise before, would always leave the arena, highly impacted, to say the least. I have seen many things in my life, some not short of miraculous, but in this round pen, I saw changes and emotions that these veterans had not expected. I pondered, how on earth, 5 minutes with a horse could produce such an unbelievable change to what I was seeing.
HOPE! It was HOPE! There are many therapies that have been used to try to help those who are stuck in their trauma, from pharma to art, to music, you name it. But I realized, most of these exercises don’t take your complete concentration, the way being in a round pen for 5 minutes with an 1100-pound animal does.
Eureka! I believe that the gold in this equation was this: When someone is traumatized and carries everything from survivors’ guilt to anger issues, authority issues, and on and on, they appear to be stuck in that time of trauma. Ever seen a Veteran 40 years after a war, sitting in a gutter because their mind has believed there is no hope? They have not had one moment’s relief from the event, the pain, and what it produced.
I watched as wounded warriors, who had not had a moment of peace, since they had suffered trauma, had to focus for a complete 5 minutes on anything BUT themselves. The faces could not be made up and the message could not be clearer. This amazing experience produced HOPE, and for many. It very well could have been the first time that they realized there might just be life after surviving the war!
Vanessa, the woman who had been so angry and brutal to my attempt to honor her sacrifice, came out of that round pen, a changed woman. She was laughing and smiling, relaxed. I am so sorry, I do not have a before and after of that moment in time, of the countenance and faces of these people who had seemed to realize, that if they could be free for 5 minutes, that maybe 5 would turn into 10, and lead the way to become victors, not victims.
Attending one more of these events led to Vanessa flying to Washington DC, where she addressed Congress and shared the horrific problem of sexual military trauma among those who are serving. Absolutely unbelievable.
Shortly after attending this event, my husband Dennis and I were sitting in a restaurant. Laughingly he looked over the table at me, and said after 33 years of marriage, “Know what? I haven’t been communicating very well.” Duh, I thought inside, but the joy of seeing my best friend on the journey to heal and open up was so beautiful, sarcasm would have spoiled the moment.
Yes, to the day he stepped into heaven, September 12th, 2021, my husband of 43 years still screamed at night, and dealt with some hard stuff. But unequivocally I can tell you, that the fruit of that wonderful weekend was so impactful we ended up going to 11 or 12 of the weekends, and the results for almost everyone were mind-blowing.
NEW BEGINNINGS, start with you. NEVER GIVE UP, NEVER GIVE IN, keep searching for your healing, and get to the root of the issues and be healed!
For 43 years, Dennis and Diana Nickell shared their lives, passion, and hearts. Dennis, a Vietnam Combat Veteran who dealt daily with the aftermath of his 14 months in-country, spent his later years reaching out to Veterans, their loved ones and tried to help share why you should never give up. Sept, 12th, 2021 Dennis joined his brothers in arms in heaven, who never had the chance to have the life he fought for daily, and his wife Diana still carries on the mission of educating, enlightening, and encouraging those who have paid such a heavy price for freedom.
Dedicated to ALL, first responders, and heroes, Diana has found peace in the wealth of her family and her faith. YouTube series Surviving Vietnam can be accessed freely email@example.com with any questions or concerns.
As the Voice of the Veteran Community, The Havok Journal seeks to publish a variety of perspectives on a number of sensitive subjects. Unless specifically noted otherwise, nothing we publish is an official point of view of The Havok Journal or any part of the U.S. government.