BY MICHAEL Walton
TRAVERSE CITY — Members of the U.S. Coast Guard raised an American flag to half-mast over Reining Liberty Ranch on a rainy afternoon.
Veterans and other members of the community watched the ceremony, a sort of unofficial opening for the nonprofit ranch that hopes to offer veterans and their families a place to find support and solace.
The ranch is the brainchild of Traverse City residents Becky and Dennis Bigelow. They spent their own money — Becky Bigelow would not say how much — to purchase property and a farmhouse for the ranch on Silver Pines Road.
Becky Bigelow said her family history spurred the project. Her father was a World War II veteran, and she personally experienced the therapeutic benefits of forming a relationship with a horse.
"Earlier in my life I had a rough period," Becky Bigelow said. "That horse got me through a rough time. I was able to form a relationship with that horse when I could not form one with anyone else."
Now Becky Bigelow and dozens of other volunteers, including active duty Coast Guard members, are working to get Reining Liberty Ranch fully operational by March or April.
The nonprofit organization will offer services like therapeutic horseback riding, a veteran's garden and educational programming, Program Coordinator Debbie Caperton said.
But the ranch also can be a place for veterans and their families to meet with other veterans who understand the difficulties confronted by many former service members.
Jonathan Reed, an Army veteran who served in Iraq in 2005-06, described himself as a volunteer at the ranch who wears many hats.
Reed, of Traverse City, returned from Iraq suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury that went undiagnosed for three years. Reed said he sustained the brain injury in a car accident. He was riding in a Humvee at night without headlights when his driver's night vision goggles went out.
Reed helped the driver fix his goggles, but the Humvee crashed into a concrete barricade and violently threw Reed against the vehicle's interior.
Reed entered the VA health system and began receiving care for his ailments once he returned home, but he struggled with social isolation and forming connections with others.
"That's kind of where the ranch has been a big help," he said. "Socializing, becoming comfortable with strangers."
Reed said he enjoys his ranch chores, including helping other veterans cope with some of the same problems he encounters today.
"It's always kind of a similar story," Reed said. "People don't know what to do. You see that hope in people's voices when we tell them what to do ... I really do enjoy that outreach with veterans."
Becky Bigelow said that's what the ranch is all about.
"This is about honoring them as warriors, but also helping them move back to society," she said.