To ride a horse properly, you have to exercise leadership. Part of good leadership is trusting the animal beneath you, knowing that it knows where to place its feet. Your job is to look farther ahead and guide the mission with your back straight and eyes forward.
So when Paul Nichols, during the last leg of the Communities of Veterans Foundation ride across Canada, saw one of the newbie riders in his group looking down at his horse’s feet, he worked with the man, and understood perfectly when his fellow vet explained the dilemma.
“In Afghanistan,” he said, “if I wasn’t looking at my feet, there were so many bombs in the ground I would get blown up.”
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) manifests in many ways – anxiety, increased heart rate, increased body temperature, sweaty palms, to name a few. It’s as hard to categorize as it is to treat. But one thing’s certain: a vet who’s isolated, angry, and feeling the country he fought for has let him down, isn’t likely to cope very well.
That was one of the main reasons Paul and Terry Nichols embarked on a 7,700 km cross-Canada horseback odyssey, covering between 30 and 40 km per day, for 211 days between April 13 and Nov. 9, 2015.
In their ride from Victoria to St. John’s they met more than 350 vets, inviting them to join daily rides into the towns and cities where they live – communities that in many instances had forgotten them. And in the seven-member logistics team with Nichols were two Ladysmithonians: Lindsay Chung, former editor of the Ladysmith Chemainus Chronicle; and Cathleen McMahon, a music manager and promoter.
Actually there were three more Ladysmithonians on the trail: McMahon’s children Zari, who was part of the crew for the whole trip, and Bella and Jett, who were on board until the end of June.
Just back from their journey, Chung and McMahon were adjusting to life on the central east coast of Vancouver Island, when they talked to the Chronicle Dec. 11. Both said they were still processing the experiences they had in the ride of a lifetime.
It wasn’t about the scenery, though, it was about the veterans Nichols was reaching out to, trying to get them recognized for the battles they’ve already fought; and the ongoing battles many still face with PTSD.
“We’ve seen so many success stories, and that’s a big part we want to tell,” Chung said. “We want people to know that veterans and soldiers are so valuable in our communities. They have such big hearts and are such amazing people. And they come back and that wanting to serve is still in them.”
What they come back to, though, is often neglect. “Veterans need to be recognized and the communities don’t know how to recognize them,” McMahon said. Even in the Royal Canadian Legion, the one place where you would expect they would be honoured, vets of Afghanistan, Bosnia and Korea are often given the cold shoulder.
McMahon retells a story told to her by Nichols, who dropped into the Legion in his new home town of Quesnel not long after his tour of duty in Bosnia – where he had been traumatized, helplessly watching a genocide in progress because his unit did not get orders to intervene, then cleaning up when it was too late.
“He went to a veteran’s dinner, and he was told by the lady who put the dinner down in front of him, ‘I’ll serve you, but you’re not a true vet.’” McMahon related. “He never went back to the Legion again for 20 years.”
But veterans need places where they can get together, and Legion branches in towns and cities across Canada should be those places, Nichols believes. “So instead of taking on a role of being angry with the Legion, Paul took on a role of trying to introduce as many new veterans to the Legion as he could by this ride,” McMahon said.
Unlike the two World Wars, the more recent battles Canada has engaged in haven’t had any sort of definitive ending celebrated world-wide. There were no bells ringing or tickertape raining down after Korea, Bosnia and Afghanistan. And the reasons for those missions weren’t as stark and clear. So the vets who put their lives on the lines, and took other lives, never received the kinds of public honour in their communities that WWII vets did.
“Over and over and over again, across the country, we gave them their ticker-tape parade, and the community was able to see who their veterans were,” McMahon said.
The definition of ‘veteran’ has to change, she added. “They’re not the 93 year-old men who stormed the beaches of Normandy – they are those, but they are also 23 year-olds and they’re 45 year olds, and they’re 70 year-olds from Afghanistan, Bosnia or Korea.”
One of the objectives for the ride across Canada was to raise awareness about the common interest shared between the post WWII vets and the Royal Canadian Legion. As the numbers of surviving vets from WWII dwindles, the need for new membership in Legion branches becomes more urgent.
But in meetings with Legion old-timers Nichols often made a point of putting first things first, beginning with the Veterans’ Bill of Rights, that is supposed to be prominent in every Legion hall. Said McMahon: “The Legion kept on saying to us, ‘We need the veterans to keep the legions alive’; but Paul kept on reversing that, he kept on saying, ‘We need to keep the legions alive for our veterans.’”
Legions have to change, Chung agrees. “I would love to walk into a legion and see a really proud display for Afghan veterans, for example,” she said. “A younger veteran walking in doesn’t really connect with what’s on the wall (now), necessarily.”
Cavalry might be too strong a description for the processions of vets that rode into towns across Canada under the training and guidance of Paul and Terry Nichols – she is a Certified Therapeutic Riding Instructor – but the convergences at Legion after Legion left an impression on the Vets themselves, and on the communities and country they served.
“As we went across the country, we were proving to them over and over and over again that there are community members out there who are interested, who want to say thank you and understand the sacrifice that they made,” McMahon said. “So all of a sudden, their own feelings about their service would change, and they’d be proud of it again.”
The Nichols aren’t stopping there. They are planning another cross-Canada trip in 2017, but this time with stops of about three weeks in 15 communities, where they will offer therapeutic riding in a more intensive way.
The program will have a lot to do with the connection between horsemanship and leadership – personal leadership. “The horses need you to be a good leader sometimes,” Chung said. “That’s one thing that’s pretty amazing, to be on a horse and realize that you have to have confidence, you have to look ahead.”