PAUL BUTLER, HOST: Today is Thursday, June 29th. Thank you for turning to WORLD Radio to help start your day. Good morning. I’m Paul Butler.
MYRNA BROWN, HOST: And I’m Myrna Brown.
Coming next on The World and Everything in It: horses of healing.
Civil War General Sherman is credited for the saying: “War is hell.” And many veterans who have experienced the battlefield return broken, traumatized, and questioning God. But WORLD Associate Correspondent Travis Kircher visited one Kentucky organization that is using horses to help bring mental and spiritual healing for veterans.
AUDIO: “Bring Oliver out first. We’ll start with Oliver. Richard Hayes, you wanna follow us with Silver?”
SOUND: [Horse clomping]
TRAVIS KIRCHER, REPORTER: It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon at the Savvy Winds Farm in Taylorsville, Kentucky. Blue skies. Green grass. Mild temperatures in the low 80s. A handful of veterans and first responders are leading horses out of the barn to a nearby field.
SOUND: [Vets take horses to the obstacle course.]
That field contains an obstacle course. The obstacles aren’t large. A few tires and a short bridge for the horses to navigate, but they’re enough that the veterans will need to lead the 1,100-pound animals through.
JEREMY HARRELL: So what are you gonna do out here? You’re gonna look for different personalities in the horses, right?
Jeremy Harrell is the founder of the Veteran’s Club. It’s an organization that provides healing and recovery services for veterans.
HARRELL: And then I might ask you, ‘What about that horse reminds you of yourself?’ Right? Or, ‘what part of that horse has a different personality trait that maybe you like, or don’t like, and why?’ kind of a thing. But have fun!
One of the veterans here today is 68-year-old Richard Hayes. He’s a longtime volunteer with the Veteran’s Club. Hayes leads a mustang named Silver through an obstacle of hanging plastic strips, affectionately called “The Car Wash.”
RICHARD HAYES: Let’s go Silver! We’re going through the car wash! [Horse snorts] The car wash blues!!! [Horse snorts] Yeah! Talk to me, now!
Life hasn’t always been this tranquil for Hayes. He joined the US Army in 1971, got shipped to Korea, and then to the last part of Vietnam. But while overseas, he received devastating news: His fiancée died in a car wreck.
HAYES: And, well, I didn’t find out about it until I got over there and they wouldn’t let me come back home because we wasn’t married. And it caused a lot of anguish. I didn’t know what to do. I was a young man – you know, 18 years old. And I turned to alcohol and drugs. And then all this stuff in Vietnam and all this other stuff was going on. I seen some stuff that would really…I had lost faith for a long time, to be honest with you, I did.
Hayes says alcohol and heroin were his drugs of choice. After he came home from the service, he got off the heroin, but his depression, alcoholism, and anger at God spiraled.
HAYES: I attempted suicide a couple of times. And I said, ‘Well, that didn’t work.’ So I packed up and sold everything I owned and I went into the woods up here on the Kentucky River. I lived there for almost nine months. I was stealing chickens from farmers. I was eating stuff out of the creeks – crawdads and different things like that too.
Jeremy Harrell says anger at God is a common theme among many who’ve served. An Army veteran himself, he had to ask God some tough questions, after he came home from the Iraq War.
HARRELL: I get that you’re God and I got it – I understand that. But why are you allowing all these things to happen? If you can part the sea – right? How can you allow my friend to get shot and killed or blown up with an IED or whatever it is?
For Harrell, dealing with those doubts meant finding an accountability partner, digging into God’s Word and going straight to Him with those tough questions. There were no short-term fixes and no easy answers.
HARRELL: And over the course, seeing what God had to say about trauma, what God had to say about these things, I just thought, ‘Well we’re not talking enough about this.’ Like, we’re talking about traditional mental health, therapy – and not that any of that is bad, it is good. But I felt like, in my experience, it was short-term. I wanted to know who could fix this long-term, right? And you know, we call the Lord the Great Physician.
Harrell started the Veteran’s Club’s equine therapy program to get other veterans to open up about their struggles. Participants begin by grooming the horses. Then they share a lunch in the barn and learn how to handle the horses before taking them to the obstacle course. Afterward, they go back to the barn to talk about what’s on their minds, giving Harrell an opportunity to share the gospel.
He says horses have a way of helping veterans to open up.
HARRELL: I think it’s much easier to talk about your hardest day when you’re brushing a horse or doing something with your hands, versus sitting in a chair looking at each other.
Richard Hayes has been volunteering with the program for years. In 2008, after months of living in the woods, he was rescued by friends from the National Guard, who took him to the VA Hospital. He got clean, and over time, decided to give his life to Christ.
HAYES: But then one day, I woke, it seemed like, and ‘Wow – I feel good!’ I said, ‘Doggone, the good Lord done blessed me!’ And I sat down and I prayed, and I said, ‘Hey, get me through this!’
Hayes recently celebrated 15 years of sobriety. Since the equine program started six years ago, he and Harrell have shared their testimonies with some of the 3,800 other veterans who’ve come through.
Back at the obstacle course, Hayes is busy walking Silver across the small bridge, around the tires. He likes Silver. Silver is – well – silver. Kind of like Hayes. Rescued. Kind of like Hayes.
But right now, Hayes is out of breath.
VOICE: You need a break? Here!
VOICE: Here. Let me take that horse! I’ll take him off your hands!
As Hayes puts it, ‘I ain’t no spring chicken no more!’ At 68, he knows he has health issues.
HAYES: All things are gonna die. But like I said, while you’re here, you’ve got to make a difference. Because we’re all gonna go. And I want to go up. I want to serve up there, not just while I’m here now.
Reporting for WORLD, I’m Travis Kircher, in Taylorsville, Kentucky.
SOUND: [HORSE SNORTS]
HAYES: You heard him!
HARRELL: He’s talkative!
HAYES: The Car Wash Blues!!!!!
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.