Three hearts, 300 miles and one mission
It took ten days, two formerly wild mustangs, 300 miles and the big heart of one Army vet to raise $20,000 for the Wounded Warrior Project, an organization that assists wounded veterans.
How, you ask?
Silk Hope native and retired Sergeant Major Jim Thomas is a regular competitor in the Extreme Mustang Makeover, a competition that pairs horse trainers from across the country with untouched wild horses to go head-to-head with other trainers. He wanted to use his involvement in the 2012 competition to make a difference, and some would say in a rather unorthodox way—he rode his two competition horses from his farm in Silk Hope to the competition in Clemson, S.C. on a journey he named “Mustangs for the Warrior.”
“This was definitely a dual-purpose trip,” said Thomas. “I wanted to raise awareness and funds for the WWP because it protects and benefits those who have laid it all on the line to protect us. I also wanted to show people that these horses, mustangs, can do anything that a domestic horse can do. And hey, if 300 hundred miles on the side of the highway doesn’t illustrate their levelheadedness, what will?”
Thomas saddled up his two mustangs, Josey Wales and Little Joe, who had been in civilized captivity for less than 90 days, before the sun rose the morning of Oct. 8. Hooves hit the pavement about 7:30 a.m. under cold and rainy conditions, not the exactly the best way to begin a long journey, but the goodwill of friends, and total strangers, made it a little easier.
“I had people I didn’t even know tracking me down to bring me coffee and drop off donations,” said Thomas. “News spread like wildfire on our Facebook page and through various newspapers and TV stations.”
Thomas had his bed for the first night prearranged before heading out, but he packed a tent and food for the horses for the remaining nine evenings. As it turns out, he never had to take his tent out of the bag. Word of his journey proceeded him throughout his entire route, and total strangers stepped up to provide warm beds, hot meals and space for the horses.
People gave what they could. One singer/songwriter from Chicago caught wind of the ride and was inspired to pen a song that made its way to Jim by day three. That song, “It’s About Love,” quickly became the anthem of the ride.
One woman stopped Thomas on the side of the highway to share the story of the love of her life, a man killed in Vietnam. Though she moved on and raised a family, his death left a hole in her heart. Touched by the ride, she offered to meet Thomas down the road at a McDonald’s in Richfield, N.C. to treat him to lunch. She also made a donation.
During a similar side-of-the-road meeting a Vietnam Vet, who had been shot in the back during the conflict, pulled his truck over on the side of the road to tell his story and offer a donation.
The most touching of the roadside meetings might have been with the World War II and Battle of the Bulge veteran, who clung to his wife for balance. The elderly couple donated $2. Understanding the value that depression-era folks put in their money, Thomas says that’s one of the most moving things that he’s ever encountered.
Three different times, total strangers stopped their vehicles to hand him $100 bills.
“I didn’t think people would feel that moved and would be that trusting,” Thomas said.
Thomas was in great company for part of the trip as well. A Soldier currently serving, who is stationed at Ft. Bragg and has done tours Iraq, drove to catch up with Thomas and ride along on Little Joe for a couple of hours.
Another woman called to him as he rode by her farm in rural Gaston County shouting, “Are you the mustang man?” A horsewoman in her own right and a captain at the Gaston County Sheriff’s Department, she saddled up her own horse and tagged along for the day. She had first learned of the trip in the Charlotte Observer.
The trip wasn’t without drama. There was a scary moment in Charlotte when Thomas rode along the side of the ridge to avoid construction, and his horse, Little Joe, walked across a crusty sinkhole and fell through to his belly. He had to use Josey Wales to pull the stranded mustang out.
He arrived in Clemson on Thursday, Oct. 18, trekking the last few miles accompanied with several other veterans on horseback.
He was honored during the main event that Saturday evening by a live performance of “It’s About Love” sung by Brian Hilligoss, who flew down from Chicago for the event, to which to he rode the two horses in front of a packed coliseum while carrying the American flag. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd.
Thomas ended up tying with both horses in 11th place out of 46 entries when the competition wrapped, after which the horses were adopted out by auction.
Little Joe brought the highest bid of all 46 horses, bringing $3500.
Josey Wales sold for $1100 to a Special Forces Soldier from FL, who just happens to be Thomas’ son-in-law. It was a surprise to everyone, Thomas and his daughter included, that the Josey Wales would remain in the family.
“It was kind of appropriate that the horse rode for that cause and then a Soldier ended up buying it,” Thomas said.
Thomas says that the ten-day, soul-bearing trip that restored his faith in humanity just made him eager to see what else he could do to make a difference, keeping both the mustang and the warrior in mind.
“The trip might be over, but the Mustangs for the Warrior Journey is just beginning.”