After Combat, A Veteran Finds Solace In Sheep Farming Army veteran Sgt. Mickey Willenbring was injured while serving in Iraq and also developed PTSD. Running a Navajo-Churro sheep farm has helped her cope with the lingering trauma of combat.
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After Combat, A Veteran Finds Solace In Sheep Farming

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After Combat, A Veteran Finds Solace In Sheep Farming

After Combat, A Veteran Finds Solace In Sheep Farming

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

It's time now for StoryCorps. Mickey Willenbring has always been a fighter. She grew up being shuffled between the foster care system and family on Indian reservations in the upper Midwest. When she was 20, she joined the Army. But her biggest fight was not on the battlefield. She came to StoryCorps to remember.

MICKEY WILLENBRING: I enlisted as a 62 Bravo (ph), which is a construction equipment mechanic. And I was one of the first women out of my entire battalion to get crew-served weapons certified. In other words, I got really big frickin guns and fully automatic grenade launchers. I've been deployed multiple times. The big one was to Iraq. We were actually part of the initial force to go in, and I can't even describe the chaos. There were tanks still smoldering on the road that we had to move in order for our convoys to come through. We had just gotten through, like, the worst part of that.

And all of a sudden, I see this herdsman walking his dang sheep along the road. And I was just like, damn, son; it don't matter what's smouldering or who's in charge or who's not in charge; the animals still need to be fed. It was the end of the deployment, and my luck ran out. I ended up severely injured. I got medivaced out. And I had PTSD so badly that I could not deal with living in a city anymore. So I started looking for a piece of land to farm. For me, I had to find my own way to heal. And that was the sheep. The animals help. The animals insulate. I can tell my own mood, where I'm going, if I'm getting too dark or if I'm going too south by how the sheep react to me. And I can walk myself back from the cliff.

There's a Navajo saying. It's dine be iina, and it means sheep is life. The sheep are your children, your mother, your grandmother. They are your charges, but they also take care of you. When you're in combat, danger could come at any particular moment from any direction. With farming, it does have a lot of drama. But it's also something that is about creation - about life over death rather than death over life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: That was Mickey Willenbring. She has owned and operated the Dot Ranch sheep farm in Oregon for more than eight years. She says she hasn't had a major PTSD episode since she started the farm. Her interview will be archived along with hundreds of thousands of others at the Library of Congress.

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