Wyoming troops saddle up for service

  • Published
  • By Mr. David Crane, 1st Lt. Christian Venhuizen and 1st Lt. Rusty Ridley
  • Wyoming National Guard Public Affairs
A waft of air at Cheyenne's Frontier Park brings the faint smell of manure, which is freshly pounded by the boots (cowboy, not combat) of soldiers and airmen of the Wyoming National Guard.

Their uniforms show the wear of the day and the 90-plus-degree temperatures, but remain professional, shirts tucked in with belt buckles still sparkling.

For more than a week, and many more days throughout the past year, these Guardsmen worked without pay. Their work is volunteer only, a service to their community and a chance to maintain their ties to the state's cowboy heritage.

They are volunteers with Cheyenne Frontier Days, billed as the world's largest outdoor rodeo. In turn, the event produces a significant portion of the annual revenue needed for Cheyenne and its communities.

"We do this for the community, just like the Guard is there for the governor to help our communities," said Col. Pat Moffett, a rodeo volunteer and commander of the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Maintenance Group.

No statistics were available regarding how many Wyoming Guardsmen volunteer with the 10-day rodeo. However, Guardsmen serve in a variety of ways, including marching in one or more of the four parades, serving pancakes during one of the three free breakfasts, even working as medical technicians during the rodeo.

Some volunteer directly with one of the 10 official committees, ranging from contract acts to contestants to public relations. Some, like those serving breakfast, volunteer with other clubs and organizations that take part in the festivities.

The Guardsmen come from a variety of ranks and disciplines. There are traditional Guardsmen, who maintain other careers or go to school during the work week. Others are employed fulltime by the Wyoming National Guard.

As volunteers, military rank in the committees does not carry weight. Colonels flip flapjacks alongside sergeants and a private may be the most senior volunteer in the group. Some only recently volunteered; others have ties to the rodeo since childhood.

*Cowboy commitment*

"Frontier Days was my very first rodeo as a kid," said Tech Sgt. Pat Keefe, a member of the contestants committee.

Keefe is a C-130 Hercules loadmaster, meaning he secures the equipment in the back of the cargo planes flown by the Wyoming Air National Guard's 153rd Airlift Wing. The loads may be dropped by parachute in mid-flight, other times they're offloaded after landing in the middle of a combat zone.

Either way, it's what Keefe enlisted for when he sacrificed his rodeo career after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In September, Keefe will deploy for the seventh time. He's completed two tours of duty in Kuwait and Iraq and four in Afghanistan. He also has 10 years of service in, one more year than he had as a rodeo contestant when the nation was attacked.

"After 9/11, I was still young enough and healthy enough to serve my country," said Keefe.

However, he said the rodeo still called to him, so he took up volunteering. His rodeo duties include escorting contestants around and introducing them to the general public. "Because I knew some of the cowboys and have been there and done that, they (assigned) me in this job."

Many of the visits are keyed toward children, Keefe said, almost like a recruiting trip.

"Many (children) already have the desire," he said. "It kind of really solidifies that to live the (rodeo) lifestyle."

The cowboy and rodeo lifestyles paired well with his service in the Wyoming Air National Guard, said Keefe. The work ethic, the "can do" attitude was at the top of the list.

"I hate leaving a job unfinished," he said. "It's a pride thing. Pride in work, absolutely."

*Riding up front*

For Moffett, the end of this year's rodeo will mark the end of his three-year tour as chairman of the Cheyenne Frontier Days Contract Acts Committee.

"This has probably been the fastest three years of my life," he said. "I got to go places, much like the Guard, that I probably wouldn't have gone on my own, but I developed friendships and a lot of good memories."

The committee is responsible for scheduling and organizing the nightly concerts and bull riding competitions. Committee members hang rodeo sponsor banners and coordinate autograph sessions. They also book, coordinate and assist acts that stretch from country music stars like Reba McEntire and Hank Williams Jr. to rock groups like Kiss and Bon Jovi.

"I go out and I secure the entertainers and I get them to Cheyenne and then we take care of them once they show up here, as far as their catering, their transportation requirements, the stage," he said. "And then we put the show on and then sell their merchandise and all that stuff, then send them on down the road."

As a senior leader in the Wyoming Air National Guard, Moffett said the leadership style he developed was critical to the success of the committee he chaired.

"I think the military side of it really blends well with the structure of Frontier Days and understanding budgets and personnel," Moffett said. "It's real similar, except were not wearing uniforms or worrying about airplanes. We're worried about horses and performers."

There is one area of military leadership that translated into the rodeo world well, said Moffett.

"Empowering the people to do their jobs," Moffett said. "In fact that's one compliment I've been getting a lot the last couple of years, is the people thanking me, saying 'Hey boss you just told me what you needed done and you went and let me do it, so thank you for letting me do it.'"

*A family that rodeos together...*

For Lt. Col. Chuck Thompson, empowering his family to join him as a volunteer at the rodeo started a commitment to service.

For Thompson and his daughter, 1st Lt. Kimberly Johnston, the rodeo served as family bonding. Johnston entered the Wyoming Army National Guard with what was then the 960th Maintenance Company, based in Torrington. Thompson is assigned to the 115th Fires Brigade, in Cheyenne.

Even though Johnston has since moved to California, and transferred to that state's D Company, 40th Brigade Support Battalion, she said she tries to return annually to Cheyenne to serve alongside her father as rodeo timekeepers.

"It's been a family affair since the 101st (Frontier Days)," Thompson said, noting his wife is also a volunteer. 2012 marks the 116th occurrence of Frontier Days.

Johnston said she began volunteering by breaking the gender barrier at 9 years old, as a toe, one of the children who help guide the cattle to the arena.

"I've always been here, ever since I was little," Johnston said. "I've always wanted to work on the committees."
Thompson's Frontier Days dream began at the age of 10.

"I grew up in Cheyenne and have always been a fan of that rodeo," he said. "I grew up around livestock and rodeo and it gives me a chance to exercise the cowboy in me."

Thompson said he got the itch to volunteer in 1989, while living next door to the chairman of the contestants committee. A simple inquiry about open jobs led to 23 years as a volunteer at Frontier Days' Chute 9. In 2012, Thompson served as the volunteer coordinator for Chute 9, where he also serves as a timekeeper, the same skill he picked up in 1989.

Like Moffett, Thompson credited the management skills, the administrative skills, and the people skills he learned in the National Guard as a help to his service with the rodeo. It's a service that still comes with boots and a cowboy hat to pound through the day-to-day grind of the world's largest outdoor rodeo.

*Cowboy medics and medicine for the soul*

Whether on the arena fence or behind the chutes, Cowboy Medics volunteering from the Wyoming Air National Guard are ready to assist Frontier Days contestants at a moment's notice.

Cowboy Medics are a blend of local emergency medical technicians, doctors, nurses and military personnel who volunteer to assess rodeo injuries and other health related issues of those attending events at Frontier Park.

For Lt. Col. Julie Resheske, 187th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron flight nurse, the experience started nearly 10 years ago, while stationed at F.E. Warren Air Force Base, on active duty. In 2008, she transferred to the Wyoming Air National Guard.

"It's just so different than your day-to-day job," said Resheske. "You have no idea what injury you might be helping with. There is variety and extremes."

Resheske, a pediatric nurse practitioner, finds satisfaction with the unique work at a cowboy event.

"The contestants are great to work with and are very appreciative of what we are doing for them," she said. "We do what we can to keep in them in their job. They want to get patched up and compete again tomorrow."

Wyoming Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. James Kassahn, 153rd Command and Control Squadron radio frequency transmission specialist, started volunteering in 2001 and is in his third year as the lead for the Cowboy Medics. He organizes, plans and schedules for the volunteer group.

"I enjoy the people I work with and taking care of contestants and others who need assistance," said Kassahn, who is also a certified EMT.

"People want to be here. They all are volunteers and have a good attitude," he said.
Beneath the bleachers, Cowboy Medics watch a TV screen of the rodeo and start preparing when they see a potential inbound visit.

"We go through our share of injuries like people getting thrown off horses," Kassahn continued. "It's just your common rodeo experience."

Staff Sgt. Heidi Valdez, 153rd Medical Group health technician with the Wyoming Air National Guard, is volunteering at Frontier Days for the first time.

"The clinic let us know we could volunteer so I signed up," Valdez said.

"The EMTs, military and fire department work together as a team. We do what we need to do to take care of the cowboys. It's a ton of fun," she said.

Valdez also helped with the Challenge Rodeo where special-needs children are paired with Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association contestants in a modified rodeo performance.

"Working with the kids is fun too," said Valdez. "It's great to get a smile on their face and make their day."
For Valdez, this is just the beginning.

"I plan on doing this every year," she said. "I wish I would have started sooner."

The experience also helps with her traditional position at the 153rd Medical Group.

"The hands-on training we get working other emergency medical personnel is extremely important and helpful," Valdez said.

*Feeding the herd*

The pancake breakfast is a volunteer tradition that started in 1952 by the Cheyenne Frontier Days Committee, and is headed by the Kiwanis Club. Each year the breakfast serves between 36,000 and 45,000 individuals over the course of three days.

The event is supported by donors and a strong volunteer force.

"It's really a great time. It lets us get involved with so much of Cheyenne that is normally hard to come by," said retired Col. Dave McCracken, a breakfast volunteer. "Most breakfast goers don't know that many military Guardsmen and active duty folks help out."

Volunteers perform duties such as grilling pancakes, catching pancakes being flipped off the grill, running pancakes, refilling the griddles, mixing pancake batter, pouring syrup and distributing pancakes and ham to the hungry visitors.

Among the volunteers are members of the Wyoming National Guard. This year's Kiwanis 2nd Vice President-Elect, Col. Tim Sheppard, heads operations for the pancake breakfast. Sheppard, a Wyoming Army National Guard member, is the United States Property and Fiscal Officer for Wyoming. He has assisted with the pancake breakfast for five years.

"It's a busy time but it's worth it and it's fun," he said.

Also volunteering is Col. Shelley Campbell, past Cheyenne Kiwanis president. Campbell, the chief of the joint staff for the Wyoming National Guard, became a member of the Cheyenne Kiwanis Club in 2000. She said, "It's a great way to give back to the community. It's just so great to see smiles on everybody attending, especially the kids. It's so great to see everyone having fun."

This year was a different year for the pancake breakfast volunteers. Due to Wyoming Air National Guard deployments overseas and an active wildfire season, there was no Guard air show. As such, the 153rd Logistics Readiness Squadron, which normally plays a major role with the air show, volunteered at the pancake breakfast as a group, providing more than 30 volunteers to the event. Among the volunteers were the squadron's commander Maj. Nicole Chavez and its senior enlisted member Chief Master Sgt. Chuck Engbretson.

Volunteers for the pancake breakfast number more than 300 daily. Volunteers at the July 25 breakfast included Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead and his wife, active and retired Wyoming military members, and even the pilots of the renowned U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds.