Retired Army Command Sgt. Maj. Lamont “Chris” Christian normally does not spend much time on social media. But one day he happened to play an online word game that gave him three meaningful words: breakthrough, self-care, and purpose. He felt called to remember them.
Sutton Shaw, volunteer executive director of the Big Red Barn Retreat, invited Chris to lunch to talk about the possibility of his directing a Warrior PATHH program. Warrior PATHH stands for progressive alternative training for healing heroes.
Having no desire to come out of retirement, Chris just listened politely, at first, to what Sutton had to say.
But then, Sutton told him about a breakthrough program that provides the warriors that attend a seven-day training with a way to provide themselves with self-care. “So now, she really has my attention,” Chris says. “And then she closes it out by saying the beauty of the program is that after the warriors finish the seven days, they go into an 18-month program that gives them a new sense of purpose.” Warrior PATHH participants spend a week of intensive, residential therapy before committing to 18 months of remote training.
Since 2014, Sutton and her mother, Barbara Irons, have been using Barbara’s 75-acre property in Blythewood, including an actual big red barn, as a retreat facility for active duty and retired service members as well as first responders struggling with post-traumatic stress. The nonprofit organization offers equine-assisted psychotherapy, restorative yoga, art and music therapy, meditation, tai chi, gardening, archery, nature immersion, and peer-to-peer mentoring. Even so, they wanted to do more.
Establishing restorative programs at the Big Red Barn Retreat was the family’s way of honoring the memory of Barbara’s beloved husband, Leon Irons, who died in 2009 at age 69. A Navy veteran, Leon married Barbara, his high school sweetheart, in 1959. Leon, along with Barbara and Sutton’s older brother, Michael, opened the first Sonic Drive-In restaurant in the Midlands. Now Michael serves as president and CEO of the Sonic Irons Group, owning and managing more than 100 Sonic restaurants throughout the Southeast.
“When my dad died, my mom stayed with us for a while,” Sutton says. Barbara found solace in riding Sutton’s gaited horse. Since this left Sutton without a horse, she did a little research and found that her horse’s mother was available to purchase, and Barbara adopted the chocolate mare.
“The first time Mom tacked up,” Sutton says, “she comes out with the horse and she says, ‘Stay,’ and she walks away. Of course, the horse takes off. That was the hardest thing for my mom to learn — that you can’t control everything. We couldn’t control or prevent that Dad got sick, and so that was the lesson.”
Ultimately, through developing a relationship with her horse, Barbara began to heal, and she developed a desire to help others do the same. The Big Red Barn Retreat began offering equine-assisted therapy to its clients in hopes that they too would benefit. Stephanie Bowman Czeresko, who serves as the organization’s director of programming, facilitates equine-assisted pyschotherapy at the Big Red Barn Retreat, along with equine specialist Christy Rew.
Angie Christian, Chris’ wife and a 22-year veteran of the Army, had always wanted to ride a horse. After attending the program on days when she was struggling, she would think about the time she had her riding lesson.
“That’s the healing power of horses. You come into their world, and you become relaxed. And then you get out in nature. You can’t help but be present and be grateful, and that helps with the healing process,” Sutton says.
The Warrior PATHH program trains veterans how they can thrive at life and live the life they desire, she says. “We teach them to take the skills and traits that were forged in combat and use them at home to be the best version of themselves.” Boulder Crest Foundation, the creator of Warrior PATHH, selected the Big Red Barn Retreat as one of 10 locations approved to participate in the program. One requirement was having the capacity to host overnight guests for a week at a time.
Sutton asked her mom, who had always wanted to build a log cabin, whether they could add one to the property. Barbara chose the Jackson plan from Southland Homes and worked with Stephen Colquitt to enlarge significantly the blueprint to accommodate seven extra bedrooms, each with an ensuite bathroom and a private entrance facing the picturesque backyard. They named the grand log cabin the “Leon Irons Lodge.”
Dominion Energy donated landscaping and hardscaping for an elegant courtyard, including a massive stone fireplace surrounded by rocking chairs, where warriors can have fellowship with one another at the edge of a forest. An engraved inscription on the fireplace reads, “May the peace you find here equal the measure of your sacrifice.”
Honda of the Carolinas donated a new four-door Pioneer side-by-side utility vehicle for getting around the property, and the American Legion donated an all-terrain wheelchair, which Chris used to take a man who had grown up there on one last tour before he died. In addition to the big red barn and an equestrian arena, the property boasts 5 miles of trails through an archery course, a boathouse on a serene pond, and a massive labyrinth made entirely by volunteers and staff next to a Native American teepee.
The elegant, immense log cabin is Barbara’s primary residence. She has a suite of private rooms on its upper level, but, unlike most homes, hers has six guest rooms. Once a month, she is pleased to share her home with six Warrior PATHH participants. Guests enjoy three meals a day prepared by an Army or Navy chef, with the help of volunteers. The goal is to host programs more often, but because participants receive the services at no charge, offering additional programs is dependent upon donations and support from the community.
An annual fundraiser, Fall Jam at the Ballpark, was held this year on Oct. 8 at Segra Park to help meet the Big Red Barn’s programming goals. The Big Red Barn Retreat received an Angel Award from South Carolina Secretary of State Mark Hammond for exemplary charitable giving in South Carolina. According to Sutton, the Big Red Barn Retreat currently donates 97 percent of its total expenditures to programs that help veterans, active duty service members, and first responders.
Barbara enlisted the help of cherished friends to decorate the cabin’s guest rooms in themes that reflect the hospitality and charm of South Carolina. Darlene Ryan designed the Patriot room with deep blues and reds with sentimental items from each branch of the military. Patsy Gross filled the NASCAR room with bright posters from the Darlington Raceway and exquisite curtains she sewed herself. Tudy Clark executed the Charleston room with chinoiserie, King Charles matelassé linens, and her own original artwork; and Lynne Wheeler decorated the colorful Gullah room with sweetgrass baskets and signed prints from South Carolina artist Jonathan Green. Sutton designed a hunting-equestrian room in rich purples and greens, and Barbara designed a beach room with a soothing mural she painted herself.
The women used furniture that Barbara collected from various estate sales. Rice beds anchor each bedroom, and the desired effect is to make every guest feel special. The repurposed furniture serves as a metaphor for program participants — each piece has a unique history and lends beauty to the home. When people sit in the comfortable leather chairs where others have sat, Chris tells them that they are now connected to many warriors who come through the retreat seeking to improve their own lives.
When Sutton was asking Chris to direct the Warrior PATHH program, she showed him the plans for the “Jackson Log Cabin” from Southland Log Homes. Unbeknownst to Sutton, Chris and Angie, who for years had been trying to agree upon what type of log cabin to buy for their own family, had selected the very same model in early 2018. Its name was not lost on the man who had spent years training America’s drill sergeants and serving as the command sergeant major for all of Fort Jackson.
To his own surprise, Chris told Sutton, “I’m all in.” Subsequently, Chris attended a Warrior PATHH program in Arizona, and his wife, Angie, later spent a week at the flagship campus in Virginia. Not only did each of them serve in multiple deployments to the Middle East, Chris and Angie survived the unfathomable loss of one of their four children to suicide in late 2018. Now, they minister to others who have borne similar burdens.
About his experience at a Warrior PATHH retreat, Chris says, “Not knowing what I didn’t know, I was going through this process of deep struggle and finding profound strength. The Warrior PATHH program puts it in a packaged curriculum, so that helps you to understand this growth process — actually seeking growth as opposed to waiting for it to happen. It helps you recognize that, hey, you can actually pursue happiness. You can actually pursue your wellness if you do these things that other people have done before you.”
“When we talk about post-traumatic stress, the word I hear is ‘suffer,’” Chris says. “The word I hear is ‘struggling.’ I hear, ‘Hurt people hurt people.’”
What Warrior PATHH does is retrain soldiers and first responders to use the skills that make them good warriors to fight for the lives they deserve to have. It takes post-traumatic stress disorder and turns it into post-traumatic growth, teaching people how to move with intentionality from struggle to strength.
Chris says, “We as warriors don’t own the market on this thing called struggle or life. The only thing that makes us a different group of people is the fact that we have raised our right hand to serve a cause greater than ourselves. That’s really the only difference.”
In front of the Leon Irons Lodge is a flower bed that Barbara planted with the help of her friend, Patsy, and behind it stands a metal sculpture atop a granite base. She found the meaningful sculpture at Southeastern Salvage and felt that the art represented the mission of the Big Red Barn Retreat. Barbara had a message engraved on the pillar underneath the sculpture at the entrance: “You are not alone.”
If you or someone you know has served or is serving currently in any branch of the military or as a first responder and would benefit from post-traumatic growth, visit TheBigRedBarnRetreat.org for more information on the Warrior PATHH program and other therapeutic offerings. The Warrior PATHH program requires an extensive application process, but other programs require only a reservation. One exception (no reservations required) is a coffee hour at 9:30 a.m. each Friday that is open to veterans, active service members of any branch of the military, and first responders. It is a good way to visit the Big Red Barn and become familiar with its people and programs. The website also details many ways to donate to the nonprofit work of the Big Red Barn Retreat.