BRISTOL, Va. (WJHL) — The transition from the military to civilian life can be daunting for veterans.
“Getting out and switching from that structured lifestyle and the discipline of the military and everything that it is and encompasses it, to come into a civilian world is a pretty drastic change,” said Joseph Denton, who spent four years in the Marines, serving as a military police officer in San Diego.
Denton says he never intended on getting out so early and planned on being in the service for a full 20 years.
“I knew I would be welding. But past that, I didn’t know really what I would be doing and how to find that lost sense of purpose,” Denton said.
That purpose was found through equine therapy at the Wayward Warrior Ranch in Bristol, Virginia.
“We let them ‘cowboy’ with us for a little while,” said the founder, Elton East. “We teach them aspects of horsemanship and equine therapy and skills that they can take back home with them. We also try to teach them about Jesus Christ while they’re out here so they have some faith and hope to take home with them.”
East is a veteran himself, serving in the Army for almost a decade as an infantryman.
“I went to Iraq three times. I spent just over three years in country there. After I got wounded, I wasn’t able to continue being in the Army anymore. And it really broke me. I really just needed something to latch on to,” East said. “A lot of the units I served in the Army were plagued by suicides. And I really felt like God was calling me to start a ministry just for veterans and first responders and folks who had served.”
While on the ranch, veterans and first responders help with the horses, which are mostly rescues. They learn how to take care of their daily needs like cleaning the pens, grooming the horses and helping with their daily maintenance.
“They have to put an effort into training this animal and building that bond, just like they have to put effort into working on [Post Traumatic Stress Disorder],” East said. “It’s not something that you can just leave dormant and that will just stay dormant when you ignore it. Just like a horse. You can’t just leave them in the pasture and expect them to be a well-trained animal.”
East says the horses help break the ice with those who come to the ranch.
“Working with a rescue horse is kind of like working with a veteran with PTSD or a first responder with PTSD. A lot of times it’s hard to get them to open up,” East explained. “They can say whatever they want to me or you or whoever else, but it’s really hard to lie to that horse. They can kind of see right through you. And when you come out here and you work with them and you put an honest effort, they usually give you an honest return on your investment.”
The bonds built with the horses are the most effective.
“It’s one of the major parts that got me with the therapy was how to build that bond with the horse and seeing how effective it can be with kind of bringing you down from if your senses are heightened and you’re really kind of up in your stuff in your head or having a hard time…building that bond with the horses and seeing that response from them really, really helped. And brought a lot out of me,” Denton said.
Denton enjoys working with the horses so much that he and his wife now have several of their own.
“There’s nothing more that I love to look out my window and see the horses running or to come here and help with these beautiful animals,” said Denton.
Plans are in the works to expand the Wayward Warrior Ranch with experiences like leatherworking, blacksmithing, and even an overnight camping experience.
“We don’t want them to have basically any of the comforts of home when they come out here. We really want them to disconnect and be right where their feet are,” East said. “That’s the biggest part of why we camp. We don’t want them to come out here and be pampered. We want them to reconnect with work and kind of maybe remind them of the hardship that really spoke to them when they volunteered to serve.”
If you would like to get involved with the Wayward Warrior Ranch or apply for its programs, visit their Facebook page.
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