Kentucky Guard’s resiliency program, behind the scenes

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Gina Vaile-Nelson, 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment

This is part II of a three-part series on the Kentucky National Guard’s Resiliency Training Assistant Course conducted for Guardsmen returning from deployment.

John Wells, Ashe Parker at MRTA

John Wells and Ashe Parker, actors from Kentucky, paid a visit to the Kentucky Guard’s Resiliency Training Assistant Course in Lexington, Ky., Aug. 13, 2014. As part of the resiliency course, Wells and Parker were asked to speak to Soldiers about their struggles in life and careers. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Rob Cooley)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — When you’re in a tactical situation, preparing for battle, you want first-hand knowledge of lessons learned based upon the experience of other leaders who have been there, done that. It’s what keeps the American warfighter in the forefront of today’s fight – what separates us from the rest.

Resilience is no different.

“Resilience is the ability to grow and thrive in the face of challenges, and bounce back from adversity,” said Capt. Rob Cooley, Resilience Program Coordinator for the Kentucky National Guard.

Cooley knows about adversity. The father of a special needs son, he’s had his fair share of ups and downs. A former Navy Corpsman and veteran, he’s seen his fair share of traumatic incidents and rendered aide to severely ill and wounded personnel.

But when you sit in one of his Resilience Trainer Assistant programs, hosted at the Central Kentucky Riding for Hope barn in Lexington, Cooley won’t inundate you with his own “woah is me,” stories, even though he could fill up the entire 40-hour course with his own experiences. What he brings to the table is something a little different.

Capt. Rob Cooley

Capt. Rob Cooley leads a horse as part of the equine training incorporated into the Kentucky Guard’s Resiliency Training Assistant Course in Lexington, Ky., Aug 11, 2014. (U.S. Army National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Rebecca Wood)

“It’s impossible to put a price tag on the value of the experience,” he said about the course, which is the only one in the country that uses equine therapy and regional guest speakers to augment the daily lesson plans.

The class gets daily hands-on experience with basic horsemanship and conducts exercises with CKRH horses that compliment lessons from the previous day or subjects that the students will discuss later in the day. Cooley said participants connect with the animal and enable the concepts and skill sets taught in class to come to life.

“Horses are curious and highly receptive animals,” he said. “For a student to successfully connect with a horse, they have to regulate their emotions which is what this course helps you to understand better.“

Guardsmen in the class must practice self-awareness and self-regulation to connect and communicate with their 1,300-pound partners. It encourages the principles Cooley and his instructors teach throughout the week: optimistic thinking, mental flexibility and character strengths that impact a person’s thought processes.

While the horses provide a unique lesson in self-awareness, Cooley’s other go-to is a short list of regional celebrities and guest speakers who are strategically selected for particular audiences.

“Our speakers strengthen the overall (lesson plan) and amplifies the power of self awareness,” he said. “Sometime our students see a little bit of themselves in the speakers.”

Cooley recently invited Kentucky actors John Wells and Ashe Parker, stars of the newly released Piranha Sharks, a film directed by Leigh Scott, to talk to a Resilience class. Most of the students were public affairs specialists from the 133rd Mobile Public Affairs Detachment.

Wells is a self-described introvert who doesn’t like public speaking or getting in front of a crowd. The anxiety stems from his childhood, where he said he was the “fat weird kid in the corner drawing pictures.

“I didn’t have many friends, so it was always the comic books and movies, anything that would take my mind to a different world,” he said. “I was 100 pounds overweight when I graduated high school, which was a whole other battle I had to fight and overcome. So, when you come from a background such as that, it is easy to sink.”

Wells said acting became his escape. Through the camera he had an excuse to be someone else, anyone else.

“Some actors measure success by their credits, the number of movies or roles, the number of stars they share a screen with,” said Wells. “But to me, ultimately I measure success if you’re happy; if you’re happy living your life.”

Michael Hayes at MRTA

Michael Hayes, Ohio Valley Wrestling Champion and former U.S. Army Soldier speaks to Guardsmen during resilience training in Lexington, Ky., Aug. 14, 2014. Hayes lost his left leg in an improvised explosive device attack while serving in Iraq in 2006. (Photo courtesy of Capt. Rob Cooley)

For Sgt. Cody Stagner, a public affairs noncommissioned officer with the 133rd MPAD, Wells’ story really hit close to home.

“It was easy to relate to his story,” Stagner said. “We both struggle with low self esteem, but live in a world that doesn’t always allow that part of us to be seen on the outside.

“It’s easy to fixate on something you’re good at to release,” Stagner said. “It’s good to see someone who is similar to yourself be so successful. It reminds you of your own humility.”

Wells told the Soldiers in the Resilience class that failure is not always what it seems. With numerous ‘no calls,’ or roles not won, Wells has seen plenty of letdowns.

“Every failure can be a success if you look at it hard enough.” he said. “Especially in acting. You try, you fail, you try, you fail, you try until eventually you succeed. So essentially, all of those failures are steps leading to your success.“

For Parker, acting was just something that fell into her lap; and at the most important time. She started her first role seven days after her dad died of a terminal illness.

“I had been back and forth for 14 months every weekend to see my dad,” she said, “I just threw myself into acting.”

The acting helped her cope and stay out of depression, and has helped her get to a place in her life where she is happy.

“I work a full time job at Coca-Cola as an administrator; I’m a single mom. If my career takes off, that’s great. If it don’t, I’m fine,” she told the Soldiers. “I’m happy and that’s all that matters.”

For Cooley, he said he’s happy to see the reactions on Guardsmen’s faces when they get to interact with regional celebrities who share similar interests, struggles and achievements.

“Having speakers such as John and Ashe come in and talk about their experiences, whether by ways of struggles, set-backs, successes or battles, is another way to bring to life the skills we teach in our RTA,” he said. “And it reminds our Guardsmen that they aren’t alone out there, others have been there before.”

Wells said he’s grateful for the experience shared with the Kentucky Guardsmen conducting RTA.

“It’s a genuine honor and blessing to have had the opportunity to sit with some of the brave men and women from our community,” he said. “In my travels I’ve learned first hand that Kentucky produces some of the most honorable and caring individuals, and these Soldiers are examples of our state’s finest.”

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