A locally based nonprofit is going to war against depression and stress disorders among military veterans and first responders. The offensive attack is through generosity and appreciation.
“We take care of those who take care of us,” says Sheri Smith, founder of Warriors and Rodeo.
Smith started WAR in fall 2014 as a small program under her SmithPRO LLC agency, and it organized as a 501(c)(3) charity a year later. She’s a professional sports agent with a niche in the rodeo industry and also a Navy veteran.
“I felt an obligation to take my skills and connections in the rodeo industry and give them back to those who would die for my freedom,” Smith says.
The organization’s goal is straight forward: to help military veterans transition to civilian life. Often, that involves working through post-traumatic stress disorder but also reconnecting with family members.
For Smith and her team of about 60 volunteers nationwide – there’s not a single paid staffer – the rodeo is an avenue to reach veterans. WAR serves 190 members, the majority in the rodeo industry and others in ranching and professional sports photography. She’s learned many veterans get into bull riding upon returning home.
“Their goal is not to be a world champion. Many do rodeo for PTSD,” Smith says. “It’s an adrenaline rush.”
An Army veteran she works with says the only time his mind rests is on the back of a bull.
“That is his quiet place,” Smith says. “It is a huge help for PTSD. Many of them still need an adrenaline rush. They have that in the arena. Many say that rodeo is what keeps them balanced.”
Operating from the Smith residence south of Ava, the mission is split into two areas: Operation Not On My Watch, which works to reduce veterans’ suicide rates, and Operation Not Forgotten, which delivers care packages to veterans and some active duty service members and first responders.
“The suicide rate of our military and first responders is unacceptable,” Smith says.
In mid-2016, the Department of Veterans Affairs released the nation’s largest analysis of veteran suicide, reviewing 55 million records between 1979 and 2014. The findings indicated an average of 20 veterans a day died from suicide in that time. And the risk of suicide is 21 percent greater for veterans than adult civilians.
Smith says WAR’s suicide prevention education and accountability program has saved the lives of 14 people.
To spread WAR’s message and work in the rodeo industry, the nonprofit has partnered with Professional Bull Riders’ events in a few markets. Smith says events in Decatur, Texas, and Reno, Nevada, have welcomed the group and even given their veterans awards and standing ovations during competition breaks.
“In Decatur, Texas, the whole town rallies around our organization that week,” she says. “We’re hoping to do something similar in the Springfield-Branson area next year.
“We have to get up here and we have to get out East. We need two more locations.”
While the PBR has held an event in Springfield in recent years, Smith says she’s not yet been able to connect with local organizers. It’s on her list, though.
WAR is funded by donations and sponsorships, and it’s been somewhat of a wild ride.
The coffers got down to $500 in May 2017, causing her husband Shae to set an ultimatum: WAR needed to stand on its own and couldn’t depend on the support of their family.
“That’s when the $26,000 donation came through,” Smith says of the large gift by Heel-O-Matic rope-training company. “We didn’t know how much was coming. It was done through an auction.”
In 2018, funding has been sluggish. The group’s raised $9,500 through an auction at a Bob Feist Invitational team roping event in Reno, but another five-digit donation hasn’t surfaced.
Each individual WAR member is asked to make a $30 donation, but Smith notes part of member sign-up is getting a $37 gift card. She estimates there are 250 donors in all.
Contributing companies often have T-shirts and products in the WAR care packages, outfit the member bull riders with gear or provide discounts to WAR members. Supporters include Wrangler, Churchill Glove Co., Bucking Bull Pro and Real Time Pain Relief.
One local outfit that’s connected with WAR is Spinks Ranch LLC in Jerico Springs, west of Stockton Lake. The Spinks family has opened their 800-acre hunting ranch to members of WAR to use by invitation at no charge.
“My son started working with the veterans,” says Susie Spinks, who owns and operates the cattle ranch with her husband Guy and their son Wes. “My husband was in Vietnam. He started doing it, thinking about his dad, some way to give to those who have served our country.”
Spinks Ranch normally charges around $1,250 per hunter for a three-day guided turkey hunt, including lodging and meals, according to its website. Spinks says WAR members usually come out a few times a year, but the ranch also works with KAMO Adventure Inc., an organization for wounded vets.
“Sometimes they’ll come together,” she says. “Sometimes they’ll come up and go fishing at the lake.”
Smith says the outdoors can be therapeutic for her members, and she sees more potentially locally.
“I need to work on that – obviously, Bass Pro [Shops],” she says. “The more we can get those who serve outdoors and in nature, the better.”
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