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November 4, 2012

Brooks ranch owner among those trying to help military personnel contemplating suicide

VALDOSTA — Five times, they have arrived at the door of Mike Randall’s Hopes and Dreams ranch. Military personnel, veterans, some with a gun in hand, ready to take their lives.

Five times, Randall says, he has been able to talk them into putting the guns down, and finding enough reason to keep on.

“One called me one night and he said, ‘I’m going to kill myself,’” says Randall, a Vietnam veteran. “I told him we need to talk. He hung up on me but he pulls up in my driveway a little while later. He walks up with a gun. I told him this is not the way you want to do this. We sat out here and talked for hours. He gave me the gun, and we began getting him some help.”

While these five men found help through Randall and then through his Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility, other military personnel have not been as fortunate nationally or regionally.

In the Air Force, for example, suicides hit a 17-year high in 2010, according to an Associated Press report earlier this year.

In 2012, Moody Air Force Base has reported the self-inflicted deaths of three airmen. In March, a 22-year-old Moody airman first class died of a gunshot wound to the head. In April, a 36-year-old tech sergeant died of a gunshot wound. Last week, a 22-year-old senior airman died of a gunshot wound.

Also, this year, a 34-year-old soldier from Fort Stewart was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in Lowndes County.

Of the 2.4 million troops deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq since September 2001, “estimates suggest that at least 18 percent of those deployed suffer from severe depression or post-traumatic stress, and over 19 percent have suffered a traumatic brain injury,” according to information from Valdosta Veterans First, a Community Blueprint Initiative.

Valdosta Veterans First and the national Community Blueprint target eight areas to help returning Afghanistan and Iraq veterans to return into civilian life. They are reintegration, employment, education, family strength, life skills, homelessness, volunteerism and behavioral health.

David Fields of Veteran to Veteran, or V2V, and Alan Carter of Brain Injury Advocate Services of Georgia see a need to help military personnel coping with brain injuries and disorders. V2V meets 7 p.m., first Tuesday of each month, in the Valdosta State University Family Counseling Center, 901 N. Patterson St. V2V serves specifically as a support group for active military personnel and veterans facing brain injuries and disorders. It is sponsored by BIAS.

Carter believes the number of suicides could escalate because of the escalating number of frustrations military personnel and veterans face, from dealing with the Veterans Administration for benefits, to coping with the return to the civilian world.

Admitting PTSD or a brain disorder, or needing counseling, remains a stigma for active-duty personnel in the military, says Fields, who is an Air Force staff sergeant. This is one reason why V2V recently moved its meeting place from Moody to a location off-base. Participants can attend without ever giving their names and they may speak freely.

But groups and counselors must build trust, says Jeff Bondy, a Persian Gulf veteran, who admits he has struggled to find his way in the past two decades until discovering Mike Randall’s Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility in Brooks County.

About three months ago, Bondy met Jeremy Randall, one of Mike’s sons, and found his way to Hopes and Dreams. While some military personnel and veterans regularly visit Hopes and Dreams, and others arrive as a group, such as the one attending this coming week from Fort Benning, Bondy has stayed at the Brooks County facility, helping with the 20 horses and performing other chores. An Army veteran, Bondy arrived needing a place to stay and a purpose.

Bondy explains that it is difficult dealing with military and veterans counselors because there is no consistency.

“It may be of some help if you saw the same counselor each time, but you don’t,” Bondy says. “You go and tell your life story to a counselor and you think, well, next time, we can move on, but you go and, next time, it’s a different counselor all together and he wants to know your life story, too. Four or five times of that and you just don’t want to go through all of that again with some stranger. You just never build that trust.”

Bondy says it’s also difficult talking to someone who has not been through combat, or who does not understand there are different types of combat and different types of war. A Persian Gulf veteran such as himself experienced different things than a current Iraq or Afghanistan veteran, or a Vietnam, Korea or World War II veteran. Still, when it comes to discussing combat experiences, another veteran of any type of combat is preferable to a counselor who has no such experience.

“The worst thing you can tell a veteran is, ‘I understand,’” Bondy says. “Well, no you don’t unless you’ve been in combat. You don’t understand.”

With Mike Randall’s Vietnam experience and his sons’ Iraq and Afghanistan experiences, Hopes and Dreams does its best to understand military personnel and veterans, the elder Randall says.

Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility’s mission is to help active-duty military personnel and veterans before they reach a crisis. The facility offers horse-riding, camping and other outdoor activities for military personnel, veterans and their families.

The idea is to take the soldier, Marine, airman or sailor away from their normal environment, and allow them to regroup, relax and heal in a rustic atmosphere.

“With some of them going to war, coming home, going to war and coming home again, they never get a chance to be at peace,” Randall says. “They don’t get the time to reflect. When they get out here, they get away from their training, away from their superiors, away from their regular lives. Some don’t talk at first. They get to listening and doing. And we’ll be out there with the horses or somewhere, and they’ll break down in tears. And that’s a start.”

Still, Randall finds himself having to start anew every time a new commanding officer arrives at a participating base. Similar to Bondy’s experience with counselors, Randall has to explain Hopes and Dreams’ mission with each new commander on each base. Even if a previous commander found the program beneficial and a success for personnel, Randall must begin again with each command change.

So, while groups may come and go, he keeps Hopes and Dreams open for all veterans and military personnel who may need the location for an afternoon, or a few months, or longer, and he keeps the light on for the ones who may call in the middle of the night. The ones with a phone in one hand and a gun in the other.

One Marine shared his story of returning home, having flashbacks, nightmares, trying to fit into his family life, a civilian world, through medications that made him feel like a zombie. Overseas, he had suffered a gunshot wound to the chest and a traumatic brain injury. No matter what he tried, he could not fit himself back into his expected roles stateside.

An old friend who served in the Army took the Marine to meet Mike Randall and visit the horses at Hopes and Dreams. The Marine felt at peace there. But that night, at home, a backfiring car sounding in his neighborhood, that peace did not last. He thought his wife was the Taliban.

“I felt cornered and no way out and there is no way I was going to let the Taliban take me alive,” the Marine writes. “I barricaded myself in the bathroom with my 40-caliber handgun, pushed it to my temple, pulled the trigger and it misfired.”

His wife gave him sedatives and put him in a vehicle to take him to the hospital for his mental health. The Marine begged her to take him to Hopes and Dreams. She took him. Though arriving at 3 a.m., several people were awake because of a weekend event for a group of soldiers. Randall greeted the Marine, who said he had trouble sleeping. They talked the rest of the night into morning. The Marine was offered an opportunity to change his routine to come to the ranch, to clean stables, to care for the horses, to ride a horse named Joe.

The Marine built a new life through this slow rebuilding of his routine, and Mike Randall would rather be there to catch one military person when they fall than to read about another military member who survived the war only to lose it all at home.

More information: Hopes and Dreams Riding Facility, call Mike or Debra Randall, (229) 263-4773. V2V, call (229) 671-4977. Valdosta Veterans First, visit

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