Randy’s back in the saddle and loving it | AspenTimes.com

Randy’s back in the saddle and loving it

Sgt. Randy Melton stood there in the empty stables, the sun dappling through holes in the roof, drinking in the smell of horses. Horses. That beautiful sour smell of old manure and piss and sweat that means horses, even if it was Baghdad and a bunch of Arabian horses abused at the hands of Saddam Hussein.The word was out that the Army was looking to re-staff its cavalry detachment at Fort Hood, where the troopers mimic life of an 1878 cavalry troop, acting as the ceremonial arm of George Custer’s old division. The military occupation specialty (MOS) was to ride fast in McLellan saddles, shoot old Sharps .45-70 rifles and single-action Colt pistols, cut the tops off of watermelons with sabers, and wow the crowds in demonstrations across the country. No problem. Melton had hitched rides all across Iraq to apply for one of a score of the coveted positions, showing up in ripped and torn combat gear with a riot shotgun, an M4, and a sniper rifle slung across his shoulder. The bad guys in Fallujah hadn’t fared well at the hands of Randy Melton, whose company was investigated because they had racked up 500 kills in a week of intense combat. All Randy Melton ever wanted to do was ride horses. Problem was, the Army kept getting in the way.He worked for me in 2002, riding and packing in the mountains above Marble, and Randy knew he had found his home in the Crystal River Valley and its gorgeous wilderness. In 2003, Randy was presented with a dilemma: Either report to his National Guard unit and get shipped to Iraq for at least one, and possibly two, tours of duty; or re-join the Army as an enlisted man with the possibility of serving at the First Cavalry Division’s horse detachment at Fort Hood, Texas. This, with a new wife and a baby on the way, and no real desire to strap it on again as he had done in his 10 years as an Army Ranger, serving in Panama, Haiti, Somalia and wherever American foreign policy committed its best combat troops.He chose the latter. As it worked out, he did get to join the horse detachment at Fort Hood, but not until he spent a year in Iraq kicking down doors and rooting out insurgents – 300 combat missions.Now he’s back with his horses, the proud new owner of Avalanche Outfitters in Redstone. You’ll probably see Randy at the Snowmass Village rodeo this summer, angling to repeat his 2002 title as the season’s saddle bronc champion. Look for the most cowboy of the cowboys, a 6-foot-3-inch buckaroo with his pant legs tucked into a pair of tall fancy-stitched boots with bright yellow uppers. He wears handmade Garcia spurs with big rowels and jingle-bobs wherever he goes, a battered old black Stetson, a silk “range rag” neckerchief, leather cuffs on his forearms, and a big smile speckled with flecks of Copenhagen. Don’t be shy – go up and talk to him. He won’t bite. He’s as friendly as the day is long.It was a long old road to get back to Redstone, with long stops in Fallujah, Baghdad and Fort Hood. People have asked me why Randy is such an outstanding horseman. Who taught him, and how? Though his mother raises quarter horses in Missouri, she acknowledges that she’s not a great trainer. His father, who lives in Rifle, is not much of a horseman. I just say that Randy is a savant, a natural genius, someone who lives and breathes horses and mules, a man who is as much centaur as man.Sure, he has had his mentors and his teachers, but he is like any great seeker of knowledge, taking a technique from this trainer, a trick from that cowboy, a thought from that old packer. He takes what makes sense to him and disregards what doesn’t. No horseman worth his salt will claim to be a “horse whisperer.” That term is far too arrogant, far too Hollywood for a buckaroo like Randy, yet if anyone is – I hate to even say the name – it is Randy. He also has no ego. Whatever works is fine with him.With 47 horses in my corral and a bunch of new wranglers to train, I was grateful that Randy offered to ride some of my more difficult colts and get them going. After only four rides, the big black gelding was going up the mountain on a trail ride. Randy loves to tell stories, he speaks in free association, and he doesn’t mind talking about combat. We ride through a pile of bones on the trail where a mountain lion killed an elk this February. The bones stir a memory. “Hey, if you ever need a good bone-handled knife, I know a guy who can make you one,” Randy mentions. “They’re awesome. I carried one in Iraq. I sharpened it four hours a night, every night, while I was on guard duty,” he recalls. “It was sharp.””Did you ever use it?” I ask.”I killed one guy with it,” he says casually. “We were on patrol one night, and we caught this guy planting a roadside bomb. He went running down a straight alley, and there was only one alcove in it. I had my team behind me, staggered formation, and I led the way. As I started to look into that alcove, he reached out and grabbed my gun barrel. It was just instinct. I grabbed that knife and started with a big swing at about his kneecap. Went through all his ribs and came out at his collarbone. Dropped his guts on his feet.”Imagine how scary that must have been. During those 300 combat missions, leading the way up narrow staircases at 3 a.m. with a fire team behind him, 12-gauge riot gun in hand, blowing the hinges and knob off a door with three quick shots and rushing in to find Haji sitting there building bombs, Randy was scared, sure, but not really. He never lost a man, either.If you would really ask him, I think he’s probably more scared now. He bought a new business offering pack trips and trail rides, and elk hunts in the fall. The rent is steep, there are lots of unanticipated expenses, and he’s got to jump-start the whole thing. That’s not combat, but it’s scary. Randy Melton is the real McCoy, the true American hero, the cowboy, the soldier. He’s put his life on the line for this country literally hundreds of times, and now all he wants to do is saddle his mules and pack people into the high country. If you’ve ever wanted to ride with a hero and see some gorgeous wilderness, then help him get his business started. It’s the least you can do. Call (970) 963-1144, or go to redmountainstables.com. Randy is a savant, a natural genius, someone who lives and breathes horses and mules, a man who is as much centaur as man.

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