GRANGEVILLE Spending time with horses – and each other — proved a big help to veterans from across the country whose military service took them around the world and brought them home with little thought for the transition these men and women are making to civilian life.
Operation Horses and Heroes was here to help.
Lucky Gallego, Marine Corps Gy. Sgt. (Ret.), got a lot out of the program, which was put on by OHH and the Idaho County Veterans Center July 21-23 on a ranch north of Grangeville.
On the third day, Gallego told the Free Press his story:
“My father was a commander in the Navy. My two brothers were in the service at the time in Vietnam. Another brother joined a couple years before me and he’s an MIA over there somewhere. After talking to my dad countless times about missing my brothers, I told him I wanted to join so I could go help them. We talked and talked, and my dad said OK,” Gallego said. “He would get ahold of one of his friends, who would decide if I would join. I didn’t ask him who. I wanted to get in. I didn’t want to join the Navy, or the Army, or the Air Force. So I talked to the Marine recruiter who was my dad’s friend and enlisted early with consent of my parents and waited for my call-up.”
“I played AAA baseball in San Antonio,” Gallego said, “and during my third game of my second season, I got my call. Upon graduation, the conflict in Vietnam had already ended and because there was no other conflict going on, I signed for six years. I learned a lot. I was a grunt, part of the package team on a mission to help evacuate the hostage personnel in Iran in 1981. I was in Beirut in 1983, in Grenada thereafter, in South America for the War on Drugs. I was in El Salvador, Desert Shield which became Desert Storm, and my last duty station was Afghanistan.”
He retired after 22 years.
Esprit de corps.
“The reason I joined this program, OHH, was because I suffer from PTSD due to many situations and a loss of many, many friends,” Gallego said. “I’ve got survivor’s guilt. This program has helped. It has given me a package of tools that I can effectively use on myself as well as fellow brethren and vets that I come across, who may have similar situations or just seeking advice.”
OHH founder and executive director Jerry Paulsen enlisted in the Army in 1977. He served in the infantry, as a recruiter and in special forces before moving on to a private life in which his business out of an Illinois headquarters includes offices in Guam, China and South America.
He was involved in equine activities in Illinois and his motivation – “to do more for our military” – gave rise to an idea for the non-riding program Gallego and others participated in last weekend.
“I’ve done riding programs for a couple of hours,” he said. “It gives you a warm fuzzy. Bringing guys together to share with each other and learn from each other is so much more rewarding.”
Following about a year of planning, OHH established itself as a national program with 501(c)3 nonprofit status and has put on roughly 12-15 programs the past four years – including in Ohio, Illinois, Michigan and Georgia before coming to Grangeville.
“It’s a way of paying it forward,” Paulsen said, “and doing more for those who need it. It fills a void that is not being addressed. … We’ve helped save lives of people who had been suicidal who completely changed their outlook. We’ve given hope to veterans who feel like the system has abandoned them. One thing that helps is they see an outpouring of community support.”
Local organizations supported the event: the Idaho County Veterans Association, the Grangeville Eagles, Elks and Lions clubs, VFW 3520 and the Rough Riders 4-H Club.
One of the main helps OHH provides veterans is the service of “Dr. G” – licensed professional counselor Michael-Renee Godfrey, Psy D, RN, LPC.
She was in the Air Force 16 years including nine as a flight nurse during Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and the OHH program is a way for her to put her professional training to use in a unique way.
“I’ve loved horses since I was 9,” she said. “I just want to be there to help people. Having gone to war, I know what people experienced there that you wouldn’t in civilian life. I have a soft spot for veterans. A lot of veterans feel alone in their struggle, and through the program they learn support is available, to think differently and to see life differently. It’s a big change to go from the military to civilian life. When I see the lightbulb come on, when I know a veteran knows they’re heard and understood and they know they have power in their life, that’s why I do it.”
“The participation was worthy and the outcome was phenomenal,” Lucky Gallego said after lunch last Sunday. “I met nine people, and most definitely will stay in touch. I can be there for them and they can be there for me.”
Those who would like to meet him can usually find Gallego at the Idaho County Veterans Center in Grangeville.
How OHH helps military men and women
On its website, operationhorsesandheroes.org, Operation Horses and Heroes describes itself as providing an intensive, multi-day program for active duty military and veterans that immerses the individual in the world of the horse. Using a variety of activities, beginning from simple care and grooming to powerful therapy sessions, the full days are filled with opportunities for personal growth and learning while providing ample time to bond with others who have shared similar experiences from their military careers.
No prior horse experience is needed and all work is done on the ground as there is no riding involved. Through this program all experience positive change to move forward with a greater sense of accomplishment and outlook for what lies ahead. There is ongoing support and resources available after the program.
Through Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, participants use horses as tools for mental and behavioral health therapy and personal growth. Because it is experiential in nature, each person who goes through the program takes away something different.
Why horses? While they are large and sometimes intimidating creatures, they are inherently honest and offer a pure, non-judgmental relationship. Their feedback is immediate and accurate. They offer the participant a mirror into themselves and the opportunity to reflect, learn and grow through the interaction with the horses. Horses are forgiving and accept you for who you are regardless of your background.