Veterans Voices: Women veterans find solace in the company of horses

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There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.”

Winston Churchill

LAS VEGAS (KLAS) — They say there’s no better sense of freedom than that experienced on the back of a horse. Their gentle spirits are calming and an unbeatable therapy for anyone who has ever experienced trauma.

Military veterans have long sought refuge in the company of these gentle giants. We spoke with a group of women who reflect on their service and new journeys with four-legged friends.

The role of women in the military has greatly evolved over centuries, from working on the home front to fighting on the front lines. Their stories are in incredible, and those who left the service have much to share about their trials and tribulations.

Paula Lubbe and Robi Nielsen are two veterans who served during a time when changes were taking place.

Nielsen served in the U.S. Navy from 1988-1992 and was the first woman ever assigned to a submarine tender. She noted she is the direct descendent of leader of the American Revolution.

“I went into the service as easy as you get out of bed in the morning. I never thought anything twice of it. It was the most challenging experience I ever had,” she says.

Lubbe joined the U.S. Marines at 17-years-old and served from 1985-1989. She was a plane captain and jet mechanic for F-18s and the first woman in her shop.

Photo of a FA-18 taken by a pilot Paula Lubbe worked with.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, women account for approximately 10 percent of the veteran population. They often face different trials than their male counterparts.

When Lubbe served three decades ago, women were just being integrated into male dominated fields.

“I was the first female in my shop that they had ever experienced. There was harassment, a lot of ‘this is my Corps,’ ‘women don’t belong here.’ You really had to prove yourself to be one of the guys when I was in,” she reflects. But she says there were also a lot of rewarding times and experiences. “I have lifelong ‘brothers’ who have my back to this day … I felt I had to prove myself more than they did and to be ‘one of the guys’ to fit in, but that’s just kind of how it was. But again, those Marines still have my back to this day.”

Paula Lubbe served with the U.S. Marines from 1985 to 1989.
Paula Lubbe spends a day with children from a Korean orphanage during a duty assignment.

Robi’s experience working in the Navy’s submarine community was similar.

“One time, I was known as ‘Fatal Attraction.’ I don’t think they really knew what to do with me,” she says. “I remember when I showed up, the officer walked in and he said, ‘oh my gosh, great, chief, what am I going to do? Washington sent us a girl.'”

At times, women veterans find they’re not given the same recognition as men, with people thinking a male significant other or friend is the veteran.

“My biggest beef as a female veteran is if you show up with a date somewhere, say, the Marine Corps Ball, and you don’t have anything on, they assume the guy is the veteran,” Lubbe remarks. “It’s really annoying. It’s like, ‘no, I served’ … they don’t expect it because we are so few.”

Sometimes, they feel their small numbers make a difference in how society views them, comradeship with their sisters-in-arms and how often women seek resources and treatment.

“You know, you don’t fit in,” Nielsen notes. “It doesn’t do much for PTSD at all. The VA has done a remarkable job with us, but there’s not a comradeship because there’s so few that you have. There’s kind of a tabooness. It’s a different experience.”

But just like their male counterparts, they need help when dealing with issues they encountered during their service. This group turned to local nonprofit Horses 4 Heroes and its incredible family of animals and instructors.

“A lot of them [horses] have heard my personal troubles, and they listen, and they keep it to themselves. They don’t judge me,” Lubbe says while the horse she’s working with, Tex, continuously nudges her.

Nielsen stands just a few feet off with Seamus, a spirited boy who’s a sucker for treats. “The horse and I have a lot in common. These horses have big hearts, very big hearts,” she smiles. “With that, it is such a healing energy.

There’s no doubt this small haven tucked away near Lone Mountain is a place of healing for those living with the scars of sacrifice, service and war. Sydney Knott founded the organization in Las Vegas in 2006 and has helped several veterans on their paths toward healing.

“We’re proud to use our horses to make people feel better, to empower them, to help them get on with their lives. Transitioning from warrior to civilian is never easy for men or women. And for women, it does pose a little bit different challenges,” Knott says. “We all need a herd, we all need a posse, we all need for our friends, and we provide four-legged friends for them.”

She says the horses and veterans help each other in many ways. Their common thread? They all need a place and purpose.

Any veteran who decides to come out and meet the horses can rest easy knowing everything at Horses 4 Heroes is free, and there is a no ask, no tell policy. Nothing will ever end up on their service record.

There’s no doubt this small haven tucked away is a place of healing for those living with the scars of sacrifice, service and war.

Finally, for the next generation of women warriors, Lubbe and Nielsen have some advice.

“Go for it, do it … it was the best thing for me. I was 17; I got my head on my shoulders kind of straight. I grew up I got a lot of experience,” Lubbe says. “If you don’t know what to do out of high school, it’s a great thing to do.” She says she would “go in again if the clock were turned back, and I was 17 again. It was overall a good and life-changing experience for me.”

Robi smiles, “It’s no place for fear, we are warriors … I would recommend it for anyone. It is a lovely discipline.”

It’s important to thank all veterans, men and women, for their service to this country. Thank you.

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