by ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI as published in the San Francisco Chronicle
“Just being around the animals helped me kind of calm down…”
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DIAMOND, Mo. (AP) — Joel Alexander doesn’t remember much about the improvised explosive device along the Iraqi roadside. He just knows it tripped when he and members of his transportation unit drove by loaded with supplies.
A sergeant in the U.S. Army, Alexander had been deployed to Mosul in northern Iraq in 2004. Later that year, he became one of the tens of thousands of veterans who survived the war, but returned to the United States a wounded warrior. Some injuries were visible; others were not.
“I had two traumatic brain injuries that erased my memory from before Iraq,” Alexander said. He takes his time when speaking about events eight years ago.
Physical injuries were compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult to return to civilian life. According to the Veterans Administration, nearly 10,000 new cases of PTSD are diagnosed every three months in veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of these veterans struggle with nervous disorders, anger, stress and trust issues.
But Alexander and other veterans are receiving help from a longtime ally of earlier generations of warriors — the horse.
“We know it works. There is plenty of research that shows it does. We don’t know what elements or at what dosage it works. A fair amount of research is focusing on that now,” said Del Camp, vice president of operations at Ozark Center, the behavioral arm of Freeman Health System.
After the IED explosion, Alexander eventually ended up at Fort Leonard Wood for what the military called a “medical hold.” It was there that a John Brummet, a Diamond resident and also a veteran, observed Alexander’s uneven gait and balance issues.
“He’d lightly bump the wall, and I knew he had something going on with spatial awareness and his stride,” said Brummet, who served a tour in Iraq with the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Missouri National Guard. Brummet had sustained injuries to his spine and hip, perhaps from jumping in and out of trucks with 160-pound rucksacks or working on building base camps near Baghdad.
While Brummet struggled with that, Alexander wrestled mostly with his mental issues.
“I couldn’t remember things. I didn’t know if I had eaten already or taken my meds,” Alexander said. “I had anger issues.”
Perhaps most troubling, Alexander would encounter another person and not be able to initiate a conversation.
“He would just stand there,” Brummet said. “He just couldn’t speak. If someone said something to him, he could respond. So I would say he had the better physical capacity, such as it was, and I had the better mental capacity.”
The two vets formed a team.
“I could remind him that yes, we’ve already eaten lunch, and he would do the driving. We had a good partnership,” Brummet said.
He soon invited Alexander to his home in Diamond for a weekend at Magic Moments Riding Therapy, which his family started in 1998. Located on 36 acres, it includes a heated, handicapped-accessible indoor riding arena, an outdoor riding arena and other features.
“Just being around the animals helped me kind of calm down, learn how to walk again, how to deal with things,” Alexander said. “I’m not sure exactly how it works, but horses, I think, mimic how a human walks, so I guess that helped my brain sort of figure out and reprogram itself.”
The Brummets sought sponsorship from local supporters, and Alexander was signed on for six months of therapy. Within just a month or two, Alexander had a breakthrough.
“They were about to instruct him to do something with the reins and he did it first. He realized he used to ride. He’d been involved with horses before, but had no idea,” Brummet said.
The Brummets suspected that if horse therapy worked for Alexander, it might work for other veterans.
“We were offered the opportunity to work with veterans who will be funded through the Wounded Warrior at no cost at all to the veterans,” said Jeanne Brummet, John’s mother and executive director of Magic Moments.
Brummet believes his understanding of what fellow veterans might be going through is of value.
“It was tense over there. … We didn’t know who to trust. We’d get nervous if a civilian vehicle passed us because if it darted in front of you it could be there to blow you up or open fire,” he said. “The danger is always in the back of your mind. And that feeling becomes the normal — that feeling of tense and on edge.”
“You stop thinking about you’re feeling different — that’s just how things are. You get back here and you’re still feeling that way. Things aren’t like that here, though. Your family is relaxed, able to go out to eat, not be tense, not be watching, waiting.
“Me, I have been driving down the road and have seen a bag of trash or a dead animal, and my automatic reaction is it could be an IED. I’d have trouble when my family took me out to dinner. Who was in the crowd? Who is your friend and who is not? When you’re in a room full of civilians, that could mean danger. I was used to being relaxed only when I was eating shoulder-to-shoulder with guys in uniform.”
Each class in the horse therapy program will be taught by a PATH-certified instructor with the assistance of several trained volunteers. Veterans will be encouraged to progress at their own pace, according to their individual abilities. Basic instruction will include grooming, tacking, horsemanship and riding skills. Classes also will include exercise, games and more.
Camp believes it could be just what veterans need, in combination with clinical therapy.
“The military are overwhelmed with the mental health needs, and have reached out to community mental health agencies like Ozark Center,” Camp said. “It is really critical to get the word out that there is help out there.”