A tipped barrel doesn't bother Rachael Myllymaki as much any more.Not after spending a week visiting U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan in February.
The Simi Valley, Calif., cowgirl made the trip, along with fellow barrel racer Fallon Taylor, and retired bull riders Michael Gaffney and Tater Porter of the Professional Bull Riders. The trip, Feb. 9-18, was coordinated by Pro Sports MVP, a Colorado-based full service marketing firm.
"It was a very humbling experience,'' said Myllymaki, a seven-time qualifier for the National Finals Rodeo. "These people (military), I know it's there job, but they're over there for us. It makes you feel very small. That your problems are very small in the whole realm of things. My problem is getting around three barrels…that's not a problem. You feel so fortunate to live in the United States.''
For three days, the group did meet-and-greets, had autograph sessions and received demonstrations from the military on everything from weaponary to watching a bomb-sniffing dog at work. Armed guards escorted the group everywhere.
"There were some areas they couldn't show us because of safety reasons,'' said Myllymaki. "The rodeo industry is still a pretty small world. It's not like we're Cher or Madonna. We're not household names. But so many military people are from rural areas. They have brothers who are bull riders or they know some barrel racers … I talked to more people in a week than I talked to in the previous year. They just wanted to hear some news from home. We're the ones who should be saying thank you.''
And while Myllymaki felt safe, there were the occasional sobering reminders.
"They have guns racks at the end of tables. In the cafeteria,'' she said. "You know those 'Got Milk' posters? They had posters that said 'Got Weapon?' It was interesting.''
While Gaffney is the son of an Air Force fighter pilot, the trip was also more meaningful for Myllymaki. One brother, Keith Henderson, is home in Montana after a couple of tours of duty in Iraq, while another brother, Zach Henderson, is currently in boot camp.
"Talking to the military personnel, I mean they don't even know us, they do it for their families, communities and country,'' Myllymaki said with a touch of awe in her voice. "One said to me, 'If these people don't have us, who do they have to take care of them?' That was incredible.It gives you an appreciation of what you have and where you live.''