FORT RILEY, Kan. - Soldiers often form bonds with each other through shared experiences in the face of adversity, but rarely is the opportunity presented for those same bonds to be formed between the senior leaders and the junior troops.

From Oct. 13 through Oct. 15, a group of leaders with upwards of 20 years experience in the Army and Soldiers with as few as two years in the service fostered relationships through a Strong Bonds retreat to the Ringneck Ranch in Tipton, Kan.

Over the course of the three day retreat, the group, all members of the 1st Infantry Division, went hunting and fishing together in a relaxed environment away from the everyday stresses of being a Soldier.

Spc. Brady Johnson, the 1st Inf. Div. deputy commandant, said the trip had a significant impact on him.

"The retreat was probably one of the most exciting and influential trips that the military has ever provided for me; it gave us a chance to see how the senior NCOs and officers open up and really bond with the lower enlisted Soldiers," Johnson said. "For me it showed how a senior noncommissioned officer can still be professional but hang out like one of the guys."

Hanging out as more of a group of friends instead of senior leaders and junior Soldiers was made easier thanks to the environment created by the staff at Ringneck Ranch, where the troops were treated to high quality lodging and meals on a beautiful ranch in North Kansas.

Lisa Hake, a hostess at the Blue Hills Lodge on the ranch, said it was her pleasure to work with the troops of the Big Red One.

"What a privilege and honor it was to have our servicemen join us for a few days here at our lodge," Hake said. "Their commitment, care and concern for our country was constantly on display for us to see.

"It was truly a joy to serve them, and we look forward to more opportunities."
Debra Houghton, one of the owners of Ringneck Ranch, said hosting the servicemembers was a way for her to give back.

"My family, especially my grandparents, instilled in us as children a real sense of patriotism for our country and appreciation for our military's sacrifices to protect our lives, freedom and liberty," Houghton said. "If in some small way I can express my gratitude to those in the service and to their families, I feel blessed and honored to be able to do so."

In addition to the good time made better by the staff at the facility, Sgt. 1st Class Roger Matthews, an operations NCO with the 1st Inf. Div. Headquarters, said the retreat provided learning opportunities for the leaders as well.

"The event was very beneficial not only for the junior enlisted but also for the senior enlisted," Matthews said. "I was able to talk with the junior enlisted on a more personal basis and hear their issues and concerns in a more intimate setting.

"I was able to teach, coach and mentor Soldiers and in some cases be taught, coached, and mentored myself."

Col. Donnie Walker, the 1st Inf. Div. assistant chief of staff for commander's initiatives, said the atmosphere was perfect for the leaders to help the young troops appreciate the outdoors.

"The Ringneck Ranch experience provided the perfect setting for Soldiers of all ranks from the Big Red One to share a common interest and to build camaraderie and fellowship," Walker said. "The senior mentors were able to teach the junior Soldiers about the positive aspects of hunting, fishing and how to appreciate what nature has to offer."

Appreciating nature was easier thanks to the help of the guides working the ranch who were eager to teach first-time hunters the fundamentals of the sport, and Wayne Loy, the operations manager and one of the guides at Ringneck Ranch, said the Strong Bonds retreat was a different kind of excursion.

"It was an enjoyable two days hunting with some of our Soldiers, made more enjoyable by seeing the good time they had outdoors," Loy said.

By the end of the Strong Bonds retreat, Walker said the relationships built were clearly evident.

"The times we all spent around the breakfast, lunch and dinner table were priceless, where we told war stories, shared previous hunting experiences, talked current events, military history, and talked about where we came from and grew up, our families and talked about our group experiences on the hunt we had just completed; these were some of my most enjoyable times each day during the three-day trip," Walker said. "I also found it interesting that we all sat in the same place at each meal, just as a family would in their own home."

At the conclusion of the event, the Soldiers were very appreciative of the staff at the ranch for making them feel at home, but Lila Lawrence, a hostess at the Blue Hills Lodge, said she was equally grateful for the opportunity to host the troops.

"This was truly an awesome experience; everything I had heard about Soldiers in the past proved to be true," Lawrence said. "They were very kind and courteous, always asking what they could do to help, they were humble when talking about their military life and the role they played in making our lives safer, they thanked us over and over again for doing something that we considered a privilege, and they were true gentlemen and true heroes.

"They gave my family a chance to do something that most people never get: to thank them in person for what they have done and are continuing to do for our country, fight for our freedom. I will remember their visit for the rest of my life and look forward to hosting several more groups of Soldiers, whom I'm sure will prove to be every bit the heroes that these gentlemen were."

The October Strong Bonds retreat to Ringneck Ranch was the first of many the Big Red One hopes to hold for its Soldiers.