"Coming Alive" at Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding
If you've ever been faced with a personal battle, you know that sometimes all it takes to win is the support of one person. One woman is that support for the riders at STAR, or Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding.
The day we visited STAR in Lenoir City, it was raining. But the dreary weather didn't matter to Captain Mark Brogan, who was busy inside the barn pulling his horse from a stall and getting ready to ride.
Brogan told us, "I never thought I would be doing something like this honestly."
Six years ago, Brogan never thought he'd be in Iraq either, moments away from a deadly ambush while on patrol.
He said, "The area was eerily quiet and we knew something was going on a suicide bomber killed the soldier next to me... When they got to me I was slumped up against the wall bleeding out of both ears my right arm was nearly detached, shrapnel injuries all over me."
At the hospital it was touch and go. Doctors broke his skull, removed part of his brain, put him back together, and doubted that he'd live.
Brogan has since recovered but has limited use in one of his arms, and communication issues because doctors removed part of his brain. His hearing is also impacted and he uses a microphone and hearing piece to communicate with people around him.
Brogan said, "The hearing loss is an invisible disability, the brain injury is an invisible disability."
But for all that you can't see, his ability to prove doctors wrong is as plain as day. Brogan mounted a horse and reflected that, "Nine years ago I couldn't even get out of a wheelchair, and now I'm riding a horse."
At STAR, a soldier is only as good as his horse, and only as good as his leader. In the riding arena, Robin Bowen is that leader for Brogan. She's the instructor for several veterans who are using horses to recover from war.
Bowen said she's referred to as "Sarge" because, "I think I make them do, they say "I'm tired today" and I say I don't care your horse needs exercise let's get up and get going."
Every Friday Bowen uses her heaviest artillery to help wounded men and women find what they're looking for.
Then, the next week she returns to the barn not as a Sergeant fighting for her troops, but as a mother, fighting for her daughter's place in this world.
Michelle Bowen is 37 years old. She's been riding at STAR for 25 years, and the barn has been her place in the world. She was diagnosed with a form of Down syndrome called Mosaic syndrome and was given a bleak diagnoses from doctors.
Her mother said, "Michelle was born and we were told to institutionalize her, that she would never give back to the community."
But boy did Michelle prove them wrong. By selling hand made bracelets, and sending out a yearly letter, Michelle became one of STAR's biggest fundraisers, pulling in nearly $40,000.
Bowen said, "For her to be where she's at today there are no challenges, you're going to make me cry. I'm very proud of what she does."
Little victories like Captain Brogan's, or Michelle's, is what brings Bowen back to the barn week after week. She said, "Whatever their achievement is small, big, it's all worth it."
Proof that you can win if you follow the right person into battle.
Bowen said, "There's nothing better than that smile they show when they're done. That's the reward in itself I don't do it for praise for me I do it for them."