- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Army veterans Sarah and Justin Williams, like so many, found it hard returning home from combat in Iraq.
The couple, who served together before they wed, would find it hard just leaving their home, let alone shopping, driving, going to work or anything else necessary to function as a civilian family.
Through Operation Warrior Refuge, an equine therapy support group in St. Mary’s County, they said they’ve both found new battle buddies to help them continue their transition to civilian life.
“Whoever has your back is your battle buddy,” Sarah, one of the three founders of Operation Warrior Refuge, said.
She had always dreamed of riding and owning her own horse as a child. It wasn’t until after her tours that she finally began interacting with horses. She’s been riding for a couple of years now.
“There’s just something about them that’s calming,” Williams said.
After several years of struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, Sarah said she began to seek help in earnest.
The couple moved to St. Mary’s from Georgia a few years ago, in part so Justin could land a job at Patuxent River Naval Air Station and also because of the horse-friendly nature of St. Mary’s County.
However, once here the Williamses found it hard to meet or connect with other veterans.
“They are here, but it’s just hard to find them,” she said.
Things got worse. Sarah at one point called a crisis hotline when her PTSD took hold. She was given an appointment — a month later — at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, where she had one session in front of a video monitor. That was far less than ideal, or what she really needed to help, she said.
She began looking around and found Diane McKissick’s contact information as related to equine therapy. She called and they realized the need to create a path for veterans to get help through the specialized therapy.
“It’s an alternative to talk therapy,” McKissick, a certified therapist and cofounder of the group, said.
The women joined forces with Julie Devine, who in addition to being a certified therapist is also a horse specialist.
The overriding objective of the therapy is to transition the veterans “back to normalcy” of civilian life, Sarah said.
At first, she said, it may veterans may not even realize they have PTSD and need help.
“They may not realize it or accept it. It took me a long time to accept it,” Sarah said.
Sarah had signed up for there years of service, and left after that time as a specialist. During her two tours in Iraq in the same unit as Justin, Sarah served in an engineering unit and worked a variety of jobs including finding bombs and as a gunner on missions, she said.
“When they get back here they have to reboot their life and start all over again,” McKissick said. The veterans have to figure out their new roles now that they are not in combat, she said.
During their time in the military, they are taught to follow orders, push down their emotions. Free thought is not necessarily tolerated.
That is evident in most early sessions for the veterans. While there are no “typical” sessions, they do often begin with the therapist giving the client “purposefully vague” instructions, such as to walk into the field and pick out a horse, McKissick said.
Often, the veteran will just stand there, waiting for further instructions.
“It’s about figuring out the right way for them,” not just the correct way, Devine said. “We trust that our clients have their own solutions to the problems, and we help them find their solutions.”
The sessions do not teach horsemanship, nor do they include riding lessons. All of the work is done “on the ground” by simply interacting with the horses, Devine said, adding that it is based on the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association therapy model.
“In order to get through any sort of therapy, you have to let yourself be vulnerable,” she said. That can be tough for anyone, but especially combat veterans.
Horses will react to a human’s emotions, she said. If a client walks into the field and is feeling anger or even is just anxious, the horse may not want to interact. They’ll stay away, until the person has calmed down, Devine said.
Sarah Williams has another battle buddy she keeps with her at all times — her Labrador retriever, Buddy. The service dog helps in a different way from the horses, she said. Buddy does react to her emotions, but he’ll try to comfort her if she’s in need. With the horses, she said, “you have to give them something.”
Her husband was not a “horse person,” she said.
Justin Williams said his first time with the equine therapy was uncomfortable, to say the least. “It evolved,” he said, adding that after a couple sessions he began to see the benefit.
He served six years in the Army, including time in Kuwait before the wars and two tours in Iraq.
“Every time I come it’s like looking at yourself,” the former sergeant said of the emotional interactions with the horses. The sessions start out difficult, but by the time he leaves he is glad to have been there, Justin said.
The group’s three founders are hoping to spread the word about their operation to reach more veterans. Maryland Public Television planned to film a therapy session this week to feature in the upcoming season of the show “Maryland Farm & Harvest.”
Operation Warrior Refuge has held two fundraising events, and has plans for more over the next year, McKissick said. She has put in the application for nonprofit charitable status and is awaiting the results, she said.
For now, they will charge a minimal fee based on what a veteran can afford and what type or amount of therapy they may need, she said.
“Everybody will fit in different places, depending what their needs are,” McKissick said.