Rocking horse gifted to Dover Fisher House

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Holly Patterson and Staff Sgt. Andrew J. Alvarado

LeeSandra Thibodeau was pregnant when her husband passed away 12 years ago. His son, Liam, never met his father.

As we reflect on the month of the military child celebrations last month, we are reminded that military children serve and sacrifice throughout the entire year. 

One way children who travel to Dover Air Force Base, Delaware and stay at the Fisher House are honored is by a rocking horse, made specifically for children who stay at this unique Fisher House. Within the walls of this sanctuary, the family room – referred to as the “heart of the home” by its staff – holds a special keepsake which serves as a reminder of one service member’s sacrifice.

Hero’s Rock, a non-profit organization, dedicated the rocking horse, named Black Jack, to the Fisher House at Dover, Sept. 29, 2017. Black Jack is a one-of-a-kind, hand-made rocking horse, or Patriotic Pony, created in honor of Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Christopher Thibodeau, who was killed in action May 26, 2011.

“On May 26, 2011, the world changed for a lot of families,” said Scott Snyder, founder of Hero’s Rock. “We were watching the news and heard the story of Chief Warrant Officer 2 Thibodeau. He was an Apache pilot in Afghanistan. He lost his life just weeks after learning he was going to be a father. We thought we could do something nice for his son Liam, and Hero’s Rock was born.”

The organization initially started to honor the children of fallen service members. However, Scott said the idea quickly grew.

“When we started building the Patriotic Ponies, Chris’ dad, Bob, started coming to the shop every Saturday,” said Scott. “The day we made that first delivery, LeeSandra first told us about the Fisher House and their experience in Dover, and she made the wish to have a rocking horse in Dover. It took us a few years to figure out how to do it. We contacted these Fisher Houses – at the time, there were 64 – and 28 of those wanted rocking horses.”  

The Fisher House is primarily a place to stay for families of service members and veterans undergoing medical treatment. The homes provide a place of comfort so families can focus on caring for their loved ones during that time. There are currently 94 Fisher Houses in operation, collectively serving 455,000 families

The Dover Fisher House, which exclusively serves families of the fallen, was the 50th Fisher House to open.

“Our mission is to provide families of the fallen with a safe and supportive space to stay prior to a dignified transfer of their loved one.” said Tech. Sgt. Joshua Parnell, non-commissioned officer in charge of the Dover Fisher House for Families of the Fallen. “While they are here, we cook, clean and provide any support necessary to make them feel as comfortable as possible.”

Dover’s Fisher House, built in 2010, is staffed by both active duty and reserve Airmen. Parnell embraces the mission, sparing no effort to accommodate families transitioning in and out during a difficult time.

“While we all have different reasons for joining, we all have one mission – to serve and protect this country,” said Parnell. “The members whose families we have the opportunity to serve made the ultimate sacrifice for this nation. I am proud to be a part of this mission, and if we can ease any stress or discomfort during this extremely difficult time, I feel a personal responsibility to do so.”

Parnell, a father himself, understands how children who experience a crisis can find a brief reprieve from the uncertainty of a loss in the amenities of the Fisher House. The offerings, however small, can still bring healing and entertainment.

“The Fisher House makes every attempt to create a welcoming environment for all family members, including children,” said Parnell. “Something as simple as a board game, playground, or even a wooden rocking chair may be just what they need to bring joy in a hard and uncomfortable time.”

Each of the rocking horses made by Hero’s Rock is dedicated in memory of a fallen service member. Scott’s wife describes how each horse uniquely pays tribute to the member’s service. 

“The Patriotic Ponies cover a wide semblance of members,” said Trish Snyder. “It’s for all armed services, all the way back from Vietnam. It covers [those] killed in combat, killed in training, and any PTSD-related suicides. Each pony has a book with stories of these heroes because we want to celebrate their lives and how they brought love into this world.” 

When it came time to build Black Jack, named after a caisson horse who served at Arlington National Cemetery for 24 years, Scott knew this particular horse had to be special.

“We decided that Bob was going to build it; we just neglected to tell Bob,” said Scott with a smirk. “It took about three Saturdays before he realized he would be building this horse on his own.” 

Thibodeau’s father, Bob Thibodeau, built the horse with some help. His daughter, Nikki Vodicka, made the mane, and his wife, Doreen Thibodeau, crafted the bridle. The family’s efforts and unbridled compassion for gold star families created a legacy of appreciation.

“More than once, I’ve just had to walk out of the shop,” said Scott. “The men who serve and risk and sacrifice their life, they’re not the people down the street’s kids, someone you read about in a newspaper; they’re our country’s children.”