South Texas Veterans Health Care System (STVHCS)
Patriotic Pony for the South Texas Fisher House
The American Legion Chapter 336 from San Antonio stood stoic in formation under gray skies in front of the South Texas VA Fisher House. A massive RV, towing an even more impressive bright red trailer adorned with patriotic slogans turned into the tight driveway.
It was driven by Scott and Trish Snyder, co-founders of Hero’s Rock, and the creator of the Patriotic Pony. They were there to deliver some important cargo. The gargantuan display seemed overkill for delivering something that was barely taller than a Chihuahua.
That precious cargo was a Patriotic Pony, and what might be small in stature, took on gigantic meaning for Erik Zielinski, Program Manager of the South Texas VA Fisher House, and even more so for two guests of the ceremony, Evelyn Murphrey and Jeanie Rutherford.
Evelyn is Army Staff Sgt. Michael Murphrey’s mother, and Jeanie is his sister. Michael Murphrey was killed in Afghanistan in 2009 by an IED, and was selected to be honored by the Snyder’s Patriotic Ponies Program.
The Snyders, from Mantua, Ohio, built a rocking horse for a young child in 2009. He was very excited to ride it. From that reaction, and a meeting with a Gold Star family in 2011, who had stayed at a Fisher House while waiting for the body of their soldier who made the ultimate sacrifice to return to the U.S., thought a child would enjoy a rocking horse in such a stressful situation and asked if the Snyder’s could help. The Snyders had found their purpose.
They vowed to honor the spouse’s request by dedicating a Patriotic Pony to every Fisher House in the country.
Quite adept at woodworking, Scott Snyder could probably build enough of the horses in a week to fill the entire trailer. Wood and paint do not make them Patriotic Ponies. Community support is what converts those raw materials into the symbols of sacrifice that are eventually delivered to the Fisher Houses. There is a process to a Patriotic Pony, and it starts with the families of the fallen.
They are first nominated by family members like the Murphrey’s, and then the real work begins. They use an image provided by the family to laser-etch a portrait onto the horse, making it one-of-a-kind. Then cutting, painting and assembly are done by community groups, marching bands, school children and anyone who wants to take part in the cause.
Scott and Trish insist on doing it that way because of the meaning it provides. “We want to show the guests at the Fisher Houses that there are people across the country that care about them and have their backs,” Scott said.
As part of the ceremony, the horse is placed on a stand, and Scott and Trish talk about the heroes they’ve met over their 10,000-mile journey.
They also talk about the honoree, what he or she meant to them and other stories from family members, friends and fellow service members.
Jeanie took a moment and spoke of Michael’s humility, and selfless service. “He was not one that wanted glory or fame. He always said that was his job. He always put his men before himself,” she said.
Recognizing what Michael would have thought about making a fuss about him, she broke into a smirk. “And I know he is sitting there now and he’s shaking his head going, why? I can only imagine.”
“But with our deepest heart, we just want to say thank you for not forgetting our fallen heroes,” she added.
Trying to keep her emotions in check, Jeanie thanked everyone for continuing to honor her heroic brother, and left the crowd that gathered with a simple message about loss.
“I don’t know what the plans were for Michael, but I can tell you all this. He avoided death twice in Afghanistan and the third time, it took him from us. But he is in a better place, and we know we are going to see him someday.”
It was time for the pony to take up his permanent residence inside the Fisher House, to be ridden and to bring joy to the children while their parents are getting treatment at the South Texas VA.
Trish Snyder closed the ceremony, reading an excerpt from the book that now accompanies the Patriotic Pony. “We would like to thank you and your family for your service and sacrifice to our country. Protecting the freedoms we as civilians enjoy every day. In appreciation of all that you do, people from all over the country, have come together with a special gift, the Patriotic Pony rocking horse.”
As is tradition, the family is invited to write messages of love and remembrance on the pony. Then the project is considered complete.
Shortly after that, a young girl jumped up on it, donned a wide smile, and enabled Michael Murphrey to again do what he does best…serve.