"The EquiCenter has given me a whole new meaning and reason to live.”
My name is Skip and I’d like to share with you my story and how I became involved with the EquiCenter. My name in the past was Master Sergeant Ralph W. Baker. I joined the United States Air Force right out of high school and served my country for 26 years prior to being discharged in June 2011. For most of my career, I was a loadmaster on C-130 aircraft. As a flyer, I have been all over the world and back several times. One of the benefits of my career was to have celebrated my birthday on six separate continents. On the other hand, my job had me away for many holidays, anniversaries, family and friend’s birthdays and other occasions when it would have been nice to be home.
As a flight crew member on the C-130 aircraft – the most utilized airframe in the military, nicknamed “The Workhorse”- our mission would vary from carrying passengers, VIPs, cargo, airdropping of equipment and converting the aircraft into a flying hospital. Many of these missions were very rewarding such as during the Bosnia conflict when we were airdropping food to starving people, and hay to starving animals. Or carrying used medical equipment to third world countries where they had none.
But there were other times that you’d like to forget … but the things you do, and the things you see, stay with you long after the mission. In 2011 I had to leave the military because of symptoms of post-traumatic stress. I tried to cover it up and stay in because the Air Force was my life. But my nightmares and flashbacks were too intense and I couldn’t sleep. After losing the love of my life I had a nervous breakdown, and thus began a path of self-destruction. Over a two-year period, I squandered my life savings, gave away all my worldly possessions, and drove my vehicle through two telephone poles. Although I was ready to give up, I decided to fight one last time. In September of 2012, I entered the VA hospital in Buffalo where I stayed for 30 days before being transferred to Canandaigua where I spent four and a half months.
While there I learned about the Warrior Salute program and decided to contact the program manager Tom Tartaglia. Tom was extremely helpful in enrolling me into their program, which is based on intensive prolonged exposure therapy. This was very beneficial to me in reducing the pains that come with post-traumatic stress. At the same time, I was introduced to the Heroes and Horses program, a Veterans program at the EquiCenter. Right from the beginning, I found the EquiCenter family to be warm and welcoming. As I began to learn more about caring for the horses, I found peace with them I didn’t know was possible. The more that I came to the EquiCenter the more I felt wanted … and a warmth that I hadn’t felt in a very long time. The EquiCenter has given to me a whole new meaning and a reason to live. Over time I was able to open up those parts of me that war had shut down; to enjoy the friendships, relationships with the horses, the beauty of the land, and the joy and success of our students. Staff at the EquiCenter helped me apply for a Mission Continues Fellowship, which I received.
I hope someday to be able to start a horse farm of my own, but right now my life is here at the EquiCenter. I’m learning on a daily basis and my mentor, Lindsay Alberts, goes out of her way to teach me more about the management of a horse ranch. Here I am able to use many of my skills, to combine my love of giving to others with my love of horses. I am riding, too, which I love most of all. My goal is to be able to go trail riding as an exercise rider. The way I see it, if I can do my part for the EquiCenter and I can gain so much from it, it’s a win-win for all of us.
There aren’t enough ways for me to express my appreciation to the EquiCenter family of staff, volunteers, horses, and supporters. I want all of you to know, being here has changed my life. In order for the EquiCenter to continue to help all who come here, including Veterans like me, your support is essential. Won’t you please take a moment to help by sending your gift of support to the EquiCenter today, so we can offer other Veterans the helping hand and new life that is being given to me?