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What a veteran Navy SEAL brings to the Montana backcountry



Micah Fink is gathering combat veterans in the backwoods of Montana with a fleet of horses and plenty of survival gear. The aim: to change the way soldiers re-enter civilian life.

The 37-year-old former Navy SEAL and combat medic had 10 years in Iraq, Afghanistan and other conflict zones. Then he spent four years as a paramilitary operative. “Going to war doesn’t make you a victim,” he says.

Since 2013, Mr. Fink has been trail boss and CEO of Heroes and Horses, a Manhattan, Montana-based nonprofit organization that takes veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder through an intensive horse-packing and wilderness survival challenge.

Participants must commit to the entire three-phase program, which aims to put veterans back into a raw, high-pressure environment—without the violence of combat—so they can reclaim that part of themselves that is lost, he says.

Struggling veterans often come to his program after years of traditional therapy and medication, and often they’re still having issues.

“Treatment programs are all designed to take the struggle away and take the pain away, but it’s struggle that gives things value,” he says.

Mr. Fink knows his views are controversial. Instead of trying to eliminate stressors, he seeks to re-create the level of intensity and sense of purpose that will be familiar to most soldiers.

Heroes and Horses takes veterans into Montana’s Bob Marshall Wilderness for up to four weeks. No experience is necessary.

Still, Mr. Fink says this isn't a vacation. They get sleeping bags but no tents. No electronic devices are allowed. No alcohol. No smoking on horseback.

Mr. Fink’s packing routine is based on worst-case-scenarios, of which there are many.

“Let’s say I’m 60 miles into the backcountry and a bear runs out of the woods. I get bucked off, and my pack mules and saddle horse bolt. Things can get terminal quick,” he says.

His first-line gear—items he has with him at all times—include a GPS unit, compass, a magnesium fire-starter and a fixed-blade.

He carries a .44 Magnum and bear spray. “Moose are a big problem and you always have to think about grizzly bears,” he says.

In his pocket, he always keeps a little plastic bag with a few cotton balls rubbed in Vaseline to use as kindling in the rain.

He wears his riding vest, leather gloves, chaps, boots, spurs and his lucky cowboy hat.

He’s just as enamored with high-tech gear as the next military guy. “But how many pairs of nice Gore-Tex pants did I have to shred on tree branches before I learned?” he says. “There’s a place for heavy-duty leather cowboy stuff.”

If he loses his pack mules, but manages to hang on to his saddle horse, then he’ll have his saddle bags, which hold his second-line gear: a King rope, medical kit, emergency blanket, energy bars, steel water bottle, extra horseshoes, a hammer, a small water bottle filled with fishing line, hooks, iodine tablets, cordage and a signaling mirror, and his Sonicare electric toothbrush.

“It’ll be dead quiet, the moon will be out, wolves howling…and you’ll hear the ‘bzzzzz!’ of me brushing my teeth,” he says.

About 40 veterans have participated in Heroes and Horses so far. Mr. Fink is working to expand the program, because this year 154 veterans applied for 16 spots.

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