I graduated from the University of North Texas last December with a master's degree in counseling. For the past six months, I've volunteered to counsel veterans at the Denton County Jail where almost 20 percent of the inmate population is prior-military. Somewhere in their post-military lives, these folks lost their way, and now our former warriors spend their days as wards of the state.
When I hear their stories, though, I don't see criminals. I see men who could have been standing beside me patrolling the streets of Baghdad. I see men who still take tremendous pride in their military service. I see men who aren't that much different than me. I see men who still have so much to offer. So why are they wasting away in jail?
It's fair to say that most of us will face an experience at some point in our lives that rocks us to our core and might even challenge the very foundation of our beliefs. For many veterans, that traumatic experience is war.
Often, veterans come home from war to a life that feels foreign, a life that no longer feels like their own. Some veterans manage to successfully integrate their wartime experiences into the larger narrative of their own lives. They are able to move forward, stronger and wiser than they were before. They are able to set an example for how to thrive in the face of adversity.
For others, though, the legacy of war and reintegration is one of enduring pain, confusion and fear. The trauma comes to define them. Their lives head down a path of increasing isolation and distrust, and they often become emotionally removed from family and friends. For far too many, suicide becomes a tragic response to their misery.
What separates those veterans who make it out from those veterans that don't? Why are some in jail while others aren't? What saved me when I came home from Iraq just as angry and just as confused as they were?
The answers might not be all that complicated. When I came home from Iraq, I had support, and that support may be all that separates me from the veterans I counsel at the Denton County Jail.
For me, the support didn't come from the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). In my hometown, they were overwhelmed with veterans seeking services and couldn't give me the help I needed. Instead, a local non-profit stepped up to fill the void. The help they offered came from an equine-assisted counseling program that introduced me to the healing power of horses. There were no earth-shattering revelations that occurred during my few months at the ranch, but it carved out a safe space where I could find my center again. And, above all, being with the horses reminded me how to feel connected to others.
When I am not counseling at the jail, I volunteer with the people at Equest Therapeutic Horsemanship in Wylie, Texas. Equest is one of hundreds of community non-profits across the country trying to help veterans -- many of whom are suffering while they wait for the VA to process their disability claims. While our nation waits for the VA to get a handle on this shameful claims backlog, we rely on organizations like to Equest to pick up the slack.
At Equest, veterans participate in a program called "Hooves for Heroes." Here, they work with horses to master new challenges, which allows them to tap into those qualities that served them so well in the military. They spend time with fellow veterans, family members, and civilian volunteers. In this environment, they feel accepted and safe, just as they did when they served with their brothers and sisters in the military.
Most powerful of all, many of our program participants open their hearts, perhaps for the first time in years. I don't completely understand it, but horses seem to be the key. The connections our veterans form with their horses are real. The horses become partners in the program; they become trusted friends. This new friendship often sets the stage for veterans to reconnect with family and friends outside of the ranch, just like it did for me.
I often wonder how different the lives of the veterans at the jail might have been had they come home from war to a place like Equest?
Those veterans might have taken pride at having mastered one or two new skills instead of feeling lost and purposeless. They might have learned to trust instead of feeling betrayed. They might have developed an emotional connection with at least one person -- or one horse -- instead of living a lonely and isolated existence.
These seemingly subtle differences might have been the difference between jail and a master's degree in counseling.
When we, as a town, as a state, as a nation, embrace our returning warriors and offer them the support of programs like "Hooves for Heroes," their lives change in profound ways. I know because it happened to me.
To my fellow veterans I urge you to accept the helping hand of your family, friends, and neighbors --- those who are dedicating their own time, energy, and resources to your successful transition back home.
For everyone else, I urge you to offer that hand. It might just save a life.