An estimated 8 percent of the U.S. population experiences Posttraumatic Stress Disorder at some point in their life, with many sufferers being military personnel. Yet in the middle of the Afghanistan desert, isolated from their families and the comforts of home, U.S. soldiers often rely on archery for mental clarity. This venerable sport breaks up long, grueling days in a dangerous environment by offering soldiers hope, health and healing at full draw.
The idea originated with Amy Forbes, who serves on the largest U.S. military base in Afghanistan. Forbes began her military career as an Army ROTC cadet at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, where she founded the Wake Forest Archery Club. The club attracted over 150 members and fielded a 40-member competitive team under Forbes’ guidance. Now, Forbes brings the joys of archery to 200-plus soldiers at the air base.
“The program I started on base was an outlet for soldiers to take a break from the daily grind and do something fun,” Forbes said. “I created options for individuals who already knew how to shoot and individuals who wanted to learn.”
Forbes worked with the on-base Army Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) program to establish the range’s location. Next, she contacted Walk-On Archery’s Jeff Moose, a Wake Forest archery booster, in hopes of securing at least one target. Moose and the Walk-On community’s response far exceeded Forbes’ expectations.
“Jeff was our knight in shining armor,” Forbes said. “He sent us five targets, hats, stickers, posters and letters from people in the Walk-On community! I had been hoping for maybe one target, but all of that was truly amazing.”
Next, Forbes bought a basic recurve kit from Lancaster Archery Supply, and had her compound bow shipped from home. Several soldiers followed suit, shipping everything from compound bows to vintage Bear recurve bows across the ocean. Then came the official range opening.
Every three to four months, a different Army unit hosts an “organizational day,” which is a day off for all on-base soldiers that includes food, music and sporting activities. One particular organizational day was especially unique because Forbes put her USA Archery Level 3-NTS coaching certificate to use. She shot a demonstration, offered beginner archery lessons, and discussed the many programs and resources available for trying archery back home.
“By the end of the day, I had completely lost my voice, and about 200 of our 260 people had the opportunity to learn how to shoot,” she said.
Forbes says the daily routine on an Army base in Afghanistan is almost mind-numbing, so archery is refreshing. With workdays stretching past 12 hours daily, it can be difficult to find time to shoot archery. Still, Forbes tried to be accommodating.
“Beyond organizational day, the range was open to anyone who wanted to use it on their own time,” she said. “Individuals who wanted lessons were able to get in touch with me, and we could meet up on a resiliency morning to knock out a lesson.” (Resiliency time is scheduled “free time.”)
To encourage growth and personal development, Forbes encouraged everyone using the range to investigate at-home archery opportunities through USA Archery, the Archery Shooters Association (ASA), International Bowhunting Organization (IBO) and the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP).
“I pointed parents in the right directions for getting in touch with local pro shops upon redeployment, and my Lancaster Archery Supply catalog is still making the rounds on (the base),” she said.
Participants ranging from young privates to the command’s sergeant-major benefit from the archery range.
“Beyond all other benefits, I think the (range’s) most important aspect is the distraction and the stress relief,” Forbes said. “Archery on base was something new and totally different. (It) hadn’t been anything beyond a few people shipping their personal gear over and using it privately. Never have nonarchers had the opportunity to shoot and learn before. My greatest hope is that their memories of our time in the desert will include more than the grinding wear of endless days, and that they will have enjoyed archery so much that it becomes a lifelong endeavor.”
Forbes’ brigade has since left the base, but she thinks the range will keep providing a stress-relief and mental-clarity outlet. Forbes would like to build a second range on the other side of the base to make archery more accessible for soldiers stationed some 5 miles from the current range.
“I would love to see more equipment make its way to the desert,” she said. “Equipment donations always make running such a program easier for the volunteers, and the more gear there is, the easier it is to gain new members.”
Looking back on her experience so far, Forbes says her military career has shaped and molded the discipline she applies to archery. “I always set high goals and push to reach them,” Forbes said. “Many times people have scoffed at my aspirations, and essentially told me to lower my expectations. The Army has taught me to keep the bar high and demand excellence, because even if you fall short of a lofty goal, you will have pushed yourself to the absolute limit.”