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Helping to hold on; Rodeo provides outlet for vets

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, June 2, 2018
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Tough Fall

TOUGH FALL – A rider takes a tumble during the Warriors and Rodeo bull riding clinic Thursday. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

Getting the bulls and riders into the chute was a group effort.

Six men stood behind the gate, helping the rider get situated. Five more stood in the arena, one to pull the gate open and the other four to corral the bull once it knocked off its next victim. The arena was a mixture of professionals and amateurs, members and clinic leaders of Warriors and Rodeo, a non-profit organization that helps veterans and first responders experience the rodeo lifestyle. WAR came to Decatur for a week of rodeo clinics leading up to the 2018 JW Hart PBR Challenge, where two of its members will compete against some of the world’s most famous bull riders Saturday.

HANGING ON – Jared Byer of Springfield, Mo., practices his bull riding Thursday. Byer will compete at the J.W. Hart PBR Challenge as a member of Warriors and Rodeo. Messenger photo by Joe Duty

“We’ve got Purple Hearts, Bronze Stars, all these awesome people who have served their country,” WAR President Sheri Smith, a Navy veteran, said. “We’ve had people say this week is the best week of their lives. That’s amazing.”

During the week, WAR members had the option to join professionals in tie-down roping, team roping, bull riding, bull fighting and steer wrestling clinics in the morning. Jared Byer, a dispatcher from Springfield, Mo., who will ride in the PBR Challenge, joined a clinic in the middle of his work week, driving back and forth to take shifts one day and sit in the chute the next.

Byer discovered bulls as a child on a visit to the fair, where he hopped on his first junior bull. He quit riding in high school, only to resume the sport 10 years later. He broke his wrist on his first ride back. Since then, he’s had “too many injuries to keep track of,” including three broken ribs and a lung filled with blood, multiple concussions, torn muscles and another broken wrist. He keeps getting back on the bull.

“I just love it,” Byer said. “I’ve just always wanted to do it; it’s something I love to do.”

Love of rodeo and experience in the military or as first responders is what bonds the men and women of WAR together. Troy Hall, a 53-year-old Army veteran from Pflugerville, also rode bulls when he was younger. He joined WAR as part of the process of getting re-acclimated to civilian life – though most civilians don’t know what it’s like to cling to a bucking, 2,000 pound animal.

“I just kind of jumped into [bull riding],” said Hall, who is now the coordinator for WAR’s riding clinics. “Being in the military, it’s hard to find people who know how you say things. Once I got here, I just fit in. Our common ground is we all suffered through the same caliber events and we all love rodeo.”

The men and women of WAR come from all over the country, including a few locals. Ethan Graves, an Army veteran from Decatur, is bull fighting this week, darting in and out of the path of horns to get angry bulls away from fallen riders. He used to ride himself, but he “got tired of making no money and getting hurt all the time.” Now, he helps his fellow vets from the ground.

“It’s just like being in the military,” he said of WAR. “It’s a big brotherhood. Everyone has each other’s backs. They’re here for me.”

Providing that support system is the main focus of WAR, more important than staying on a bull for eight seconds or successfully tying down a steer.

“We do this as a wellness check,” Smith said. “We can see how they’re doing and remind them they’re not forgotten. It gives them a good memory to reflect on.”

WAR members do everything as a group, from pulling their buddies around on the barrel that stands in as a practice bull to cheering for the guy who managed to ride for a full eight seconds.

“Atta boy! Keep riding him!” There was no clock in the practice arena, but by mentally counting it was easy to tell when a rider won over the bull, and everyone yelled encouragement. “Keep going!” The excitement didn’t stop when the rider finally fell. His friends greeted him with more cheers as he returned to the gate.

“It’s the best drug you’ll ever take,” Hall said during a break between rides. “I’ve jumped out of airplanes; I’ve been in combat zones. There’s no other feeling like being on a bull.”

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