There were six women seated around a dining room table at a private country club in Aiken, South Carolina. It was an otherwise empty room. There was coffee in china cups. Silver spoons. Pedestaled glasses of ice water. It seemed appropriate somehow to be gathered around a dining table. Because this was a gathering of a few of the Aiken residents who have hosted dinners in their homes for Saratoga WarHorse participants.
The homes and dinners are provided to welcome veterans to share a meal – just hours after they have experienced a life-impacting connection with a horse in a roundpen at Aiken Equine Rescue. Just hours after many of them have, for the first time, broken through their barriers and perceptions and expectations and begun to find their way out from a life of desperation and secrets, emotional imprisonment and hopelessness. They are still vulnerable. Still fresh into a new truth for themselves. Still reaching out.
So I expected to hear stories about these dinners that included Southern hospitality and graciousness, of friendship and support for a worthy cause, even of appreciation for service to this country and compassion for our military. Such stories were, after all, legitimate, true, there for the telling.
What I heard, however, seemed like “shadow stories” – terribly unseen at first glance, unexpected in their truth, haunting in their depth of reality.
One after another, the women told about what they, themselves, had received from these “moments in time,” as one of them described the dinners. One began by talking about her husband who had served in Vietnam. On the night of the dinner they hosted, some of the vets were from the same war. Her husband’s own medals and citations were long-ago placed and forgotten in the backs of closets and drawers, hidden away, in the dark, like his memories of combat and afterward. But on this night, the Saratoga WarHorse veterans brought to him an unexpected trust and understanding, possibilities and truth. They gave him an unspoken connection with peace of his own. Their energy filled him with healing. They brought him home. Decades after the fact, they somehow welcomed him home.
Another of the women at the table told how her husband – also a Vietnam survivor – was so filled with anticipation that he stood watching out the window for the Saratoga WarHorse veterans to arrive. When he caught sight of them coming down the street, he ran out into the driveway to greet them. He couldn’t wait for them to come to the door. The grace and peace they represented to him preceded even their presence. Just the anticipation of the connection touched his soul, his heart, his own memories.
A third husband served in the military but never saw combat. And never released the unspoken guilt of that, until the night they hosted a dinner in their home. And then, he too, was finally, blessedly, able let it go.
One of the women at the table grew up in a military family herself – father, siblings, as well as her husband. So she knew. She connected. In her own, unique and relevant way, she connected with these Saratoga WarHorse veterans who came into her home, asking about the pictures of the soldiers on her walls and in her life.
The Saratoga WarHorse program is all about connections. Military veterans connecting to veteran racehorses. An unspoken connection of energy and empathy. A release of pain for peace. An exchange of life breath for brokenness. And, since its inception in 2012, the Saratoga WarHorse program has focused on these connections involving the participants – in the classroom and in the paddocks and in the roundpen.
But as I listened to these shadow stories of healing one Friday morning at a table of Aiken women, I understood that the Saratoga WarHorse connections are just as present and just as significant in the dining rooms of those who host the participants for these meals of welcome and acceptance all over the city. They are just as real, just as life-impacting. Because here, they touch the lives of those who may have been waiting for just such a connection – at home, at the end of the driveway, around a table.