FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) – BraveHearts, an equine therapy group that works with veterans who battle mental illness, estimates 20 veterans die by suicide every day.
Along with a high number of suicides, many veterans battle mental illnesses like anxiety, depression and post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after completing their service.
Eric Johnson, the Second Vice Commander from the Veterans National Memorial Shrine and Museum, has personal experience with this problem. Johnson served in the Vietnam War over 50 years ago and encounters other veterans who live with PTSD.
“When you’ve been in war, it’s hard to come back to not being in an environment where your life is always threatened,” Johnson said. “Even in Vietnam, I can recall several times where I didn’t know if I was coming back.”
To heighten awareness of this epidemic, dozens of veterans went on a 20-mile “Trail to Zero” horse ride Saturday, stopping at various Fort Wayne landmarks along the way.
This is one of many trail rides organized by BraveHearts since 2017, and the first to be held in Fort Wayne.
The Fort Wayne ride was Saturday, with more than 20 riders expected to participate. Riders from the Three Rivers Horse Trail Group will also join BraveHearts. The trail started at Emmanuel Lutheran Church and passed through various stops like Parkview Field and the University of Saint Francis. The ride concluded at the Veteran’s National Memorial Shrine and Museum.
This is the third time army veteran Paul Martinez has ridden the trail and he knows firsthand how impactful equine therapy can be for veterans.
“I was grooming a horse and stall myself and I just had to realize that I wasn’t thinking about Afghanistan, and I wasn’t thinking about my buddies and I lost overseas,” said Martinez. “That’s because these animals are big, and they’re dangerous. And if you don’t pay attention, they’ll get you and so you have to be there and that’s definitely that’s one of the mechanisms that makes this work. Pulls them into the moment, and it kind of like releases out pressure.”
The sessions also provide a sense of the structure that they’re used to in the military.
“Because you get out of the service, I had a very specific mission. We knew what to wear, where to be what to do, and didn’t matter, the hardship rule that he always had that covered it out. I was really looking for something to do. A lot of times, that’s the first step to healing,”
Former Vice President Mike Pence joined at the University of Saint Francis to address trail riders at the memorial.
He says BraveHearts is an organization his wife supported while he was in office and that he jumped at the chance to help them out in the Hoosier state.
“We just we all have to be praying for our veterans who carry those invisible walls,” said Pence. “We have to end this scourge of combat veteran suicide in America and I’m deeply committed to you. All we can also just urge, urge every Hoosier to pray for all those who have served and seen more who carry those burdens.”
The Trail to Zero ride also raises awareness of BraveHearts and the benefits of equine-assisted therapy. Johnson says equine-assisted therapy provides a unique experience that can’t be matched by a traditional mental health clinic.
“The horses have an innate way of communicating with the rider,” Johnson said. “The horse provides that peace, that freedom. Horses are kind of a peaceful animal anyway, so it’s almost like they transcend that to the veteran during the ride, during the therapy.”
Veteran Paul Martinez served as an army ranger and is now on his third year working with Trail to Zero. He tells his story of how horses benefit his mental health.
Fmr. Vice President Mike Pence Full Speech:
For more information on Saturday’s Trail to Zero program and how to support BraveHearts mission to support veterans battling mental illnesses, click here.