How equine therapy can save veterans like me

This commentary written by Jeff Hensley originally appeared in the Dallas Morning News on July 2, 2018.

As we remain mired in America's longest war, literally millions of post-9/11 veterans are grappling with the challenge of how to successfully transition into civilian life. The change is tough even under the best of circumstances. 

In the military, a common mission and inherent trust in one another provide a clarity of purpose and belonging that can be difficult to replicate in civilian life. Loss of our military identity can leave us confused, angry or, most corrosive of all, yearning for the past. Throw in injury, visible or invisible, and the challenges become exponentially more difficult.

 Jeff Hensley, who served two tours in Iraq, says he had trouble readjusting to civilian life.

Jeff Hensley, who served two tours in Iraq, says he had trouble readjusting to civilian life.

Despite the collective apathy our nation showed veterans of the Vietnam War — or perhaps because of it — we have invested a great deal of energy and money to support the latest generation of veterans as they struggle to write new chapters in civilian life. Unfortunately, as the most recent and very troubling Department of Veterans Affairs statistics on veteran suicide indicate, we still haven't cracked the code.

I don't believe there is one silver bullet when it comes to addressing this issue. We seem to pin much of our hope on assigning a mental health diagnosis and then treating it with a relatively small group of "evidenced-based" therapies. I'm absolutely in favor of proving the efficacy of mental health treatments through research, but these can't be the only tools in our toolbox, especially when we're facing such a complex challenge. Veterans are as diverse as the nation they defend. Each person faces a host of unique challenges when leaving the military. Sometimes a nontraditional therapy is a better option.

When I transitioned out of the U.S. Navy in 2008, I struggled to find the right fit. Twenty-one years as a naval officer instilled in me a profound sense of purpose and a deeply rooted identity. Without either, I began to spiral down. The breakup of my 10-year marriage only exacerbated a deepening depression that typically manifested as rage — usually directed at the people I loved most.

When things got bad enough, I finally reached out for help from a counselor offering traditional talk therapy. Maybe it was the fact that my counselor knew almost nothing about the military, or maybe it was the self-talk that kept telling me I was weak for needing help, or maybe it was that I felt suffocated in that little therapy room, but I quit counseling almost as soon as I started. That was bad enough, because I desperately needed help. What made things worse was that I walked away convinced counseling had nothing to offer me. I probably would have never gone back had it not been for the experience my kids had with their counselor.

As bad as I was feeling, my kids were feeling even worse. The legacy of war and divorce had taken a devastating toll on all three, leaving them anxious and fearful, and blaming themselves for the bad things that had happened to us. I was intrigued when my kids were offered the chance to participate in equine-facilitated counseling. When it was described to me, it didn't sound like counseling at all. It just sounded like fun.

 Jeff Hensley of Frisco takes a break from his homework with daughter Kacey, 8. The Navy and Air Force veteran is using the GI Bill to pursue a master's degree in mental health counseling at the University of North Texas.

Jeff Hensley of Frisco takes a break from his homework with daughter Kacey, 8. The Navy and Air Force veteran is using the GI Bill to pursue a master's degree in mental health counseling at the University of North Texas.

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Through equine-facilitated counseling, the kids developed a more realistic understanding of themselves and the world rather than one overly based on fear and mistrust. The horses acted as catalysts for learning authenticity, respect, empathy and self-confidence. The animals showed my kids they didn't need to fear or avoid uncomfortable feelings. Through the bonds they formed with their horses, my kids learned they are valuable and worthy of love. Perhaps most importantly, they accepted they weren't to blame for everything that had happened in the preceding few years. They understood that feeling sad because of it is OK.

No one was changed by the experience more than me. I became convinced this alternative therapy was the key to reaching other veterans and military families struggling with transitions. I went back to school on the new GI Bill to get a master's degree in counseling. I focused on animal-assisted therapies.

It has been almost 10 years since I made that life-changing decision. Since then, I've worked with hundreds of veterans and military families providing equine therapy at a local nonprofit called Equest. Most come to Equest because more traditional therapies weren't the right fit. For the clear majority, working with our horses proves as transformational for them as it was for me and my family.

I don't believe there is one magic formula for helping veterans successfully navigate this difficult transition. I do know evidenced-based, conventional therapies have an important part to play. I think we need to be more open to evaluating therapy options. The stakes are too high not to give every promising modality a chance to do what more traditional therapies may not be capable of doing — reaching those who are the hardest to reach.

Jeff Hensley is the director of counseling and veteran services for Equest in Dallas. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. 

CJ Bankhead