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Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates shakes hands with veterans and philanthropists Saturday at the sixth annual Hero’s Journey fundraiser hosted by Higher Ground.

    When Sam Vom Cleff returned from service in Iraq to her home in Sacramento, Calif., things weren’t going well.

    “I was suicidal, I was on the edge, I had PTSD and a traumatic brain injury,” she said in an interview during the local nonprofit Higher Ground’s annual fundraiser Saturday. “I have a service dog and I was supposed to be getting out of the house for her, but I struggled to do that.”

    Cleff heard about Higher Ground in Sun Valley and spoke with Kirstin Webster, who now works as the nonprofit’s internship and impact manager. Webster told Vom Cleff that Higher Ground was hosting an event that week and invited Vom Cleff to join.

    But when she found out the event included horses, Vom Cleff said, she just laughed.

    “I said, ‘I’m a combat vet, I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know if I want to go,’” she said, with no plan to actually do so.

    But the people at Higher Ground had already bought a plane ticket for her.

    “I felt bad and said, ‘Fine, I’ll go,’” she said. “It was the best retreat of my life. It was the first time I had cried since the war.”

    The retreat, an all-female veteran gathering at Swiftsure Ranch in Bellevue, changed Vom Cleff’s life, and now she lives in Hailey, where she is active with fellow veterans and friends that she made through the organization.

    “My life took a completely different turn,” she said. “I owe my life to Higher Ground.”

    Vom Cleff joined fellow vets and supporters of Higher Ground for the nonprofit’s sixth annual Hero’s Journey fundraiser at Golden Eagle Ranch south of Ketchum on Saturday night.

    The organization helps veterans and those with disabilities improve their well-being through recreation in the outdoors, building social bonds and physical skills.

    Bill Norris, a member of the organization’s board of directors, said in an interview that the event helps bring in a third of the organization’s annual fundraising revenue. He said not only does the organization help veterans and those with disabilities, it also dedicates 20 percent of its funding to help adults and children with special needs.

    Norris said he was excited to have former Defense Secretary Robert Gates there to give a keynote address and meet with veterans and philanthropists.

    “We thought it would be tough to follow speakers like Condoleezza Rice,” Norris said, referring to the former secretary of state’s keynote speech in 2013.

    Before Gates spoke to about 550 people in attendance, he met with veterans such as DeWayne Mayer, a New Plymouth, Idaho, resident who served in Iraq and attended the event with his wife, Jeannette Mayer, and his service dog, Ava.

    “For me, it’s great to see the passion of people who are not only willing to support the veterans, but their wives and entire families,” Jeannette  Mayer said. “It’s overwhelming in such great ways to know we are all being taken care of.”

    Attendees then broke to enjoy drinks and hors d’oeuvres while casting bids on several silent-auction items and donating money for Higher Ground’s programs, enjoying each other’s company in the mild weather.

    After everyone finished bidding on items and eating dinner, Gates addressed the crowd. The only secretary of defense in U.S. history to be asked to remain in office by a newly elected president, Gates served in the position under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama from 2006 to 2011.

    He said that by 2006, when he took office, America and Congress were sick of war.

    “I became secretary of defense in late 2006 to help salvage the war in Iraq, and as it turned out, to do the same thing in Afghanistan,” he said. “I was asked to wage two wars, both of them going badly when I reported for duty.”

    He said his initial goals were modest, but seemed unattainable. Before leaving Iraq, Gates said, he wanted to ensure that the country was stable enough so that an American withdrawal wasn’t considered a strategic defeat and that terrorists couldn’t use the country as a launching pad.

    “These goals were significantly more modest than [those of] either President Bush or Obama,” he said. “Especially since I thought that establishing democratic rule, effective governments, reducing corruption, promoting progress and creating religious reconciliation would take far more time than we had.”

    Gates said war was something that he had only watched from a distance before serving as defense secretary.

    “I saw up close the cost of war,” he said. “The lives lost and ruined.”

    He said the troops were the reason he took the job and the reason he stayed on under Obama. Soon after taking the office in 2006, Gates said, a woman approached him in a Washington, D.C., restaurant and with tears in her eyes asked him to bring her two sons home alive from Iraq.

    “Our wars suddenly became very real to me,” he said. “What I didn’t expect was that I would have to fight the Pentagon bureaucracy itself to fulfill my pledge to these amazing young people.”

    He said one of his finest moments was tackling the squalid conditions at Walter Reed National Medical Center, firing the commander of Walter Reed, the Army surgeon general and the secretary of the Army.

    “It wasn’t long before I had signed the orders deploying every single American in uniform to Iraq and Afghanistan,” he said, choking up. “Every single soldier, marine, airman and sailor that was killed, wounded or in harm’s way was there because I sent them.”

    He said Americans must remember what those who served sacrificed.

    “When the welcome-home celebrations end and the parades are over, will people return to their daily lives and forget those who served and their families?” he asked.

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