Tourists in the nation’s capital Saturday witnessed an uncommon sight in the District as a patrol of military veterans rode horseback to honor comrades who died by suicide and raise awareness of a therapy that might help others suffering in silence.
Participating in a campaign called Trail to Zero, the veterans took time to stop at various war memorials in the city, paying homage to the estimated 20 veterans who take their lives each day and bringing attention to the healing potential of equine therapy.
“The veterans who go on these Trail to Zero rides are veterans who claim that horses saved their lives,” said Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president of BraveHearts, the therapeutic riding center that hosted the event. “A lot of veterans who come to our farm talk about how many brothers and how many sisters in the military that they are losing to suicide and how much it deeply resonates with them.”
Mitchell Hedlund, who served in the Army and was deployed to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012, is one of those veterans. He said he had attempted suicide a few times before first visiting the BraveHearts farm in 2016.
While in Afghanistan, a rocket struck Mr. Hedlund as he was walking down a mountain. He suffered a back injury from the attack that required him to temporarily use a wheelchair and cane. Mr. Hedlund was also going through a divorce as he recovered from his injuries.
In 2015, he was medically discharged from the Army, but struggled to transition back to civilian life.
Due to his time in the military, Mr. Hedlund said he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), isolating himself from others while drinking alcohol and abusing pills on a daily basis.
It was after his mother took him to visit the BraveHearts farm in Illinois that Mr. Hedlund started to recover.
“To me, the horses were almost a stepping stone — communicating to them first before actually being able to communicate with people and interact appropriately,” he said. “They gave me a purpose I took away from myself. They gave me a freedom I took away from myself.”
While Mr. Hedlund acknowledged equine therapy might not be for everyone, he said veterans should give it a try and ride horseback at least three times, and if riding horseback doesn’t help, they should try something else instead, he said.
Kim Ruocco, vice president for suicide prevention for Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, said she is glad the Trail to Zero ride is bringing attention to alternative therapies for veterans and that participants in the campaign are acting as “beacons of hope” for others.
Equine therapy is just one of many types of therapies popping up to support veterans, Ms. Ruocco said. Aside from Veterans Affairs and local clinicians, she said there are veteran centers that offer private counseling, a national crisis line and peer-to-peer support lines, reunions for specific military units and intensive clinical treatment programs.
Ms. Ruocco said suicide rates among veterans are higher than the general population, noting rates among older veterans and those who served in the Vietnam era are especially high.
“I think awareness campaigns alone we have to be careful with,” Ms. Ruocco said. “If we just talk about the numbers and how many people are dying, that could increase hopelessness and helplessness in those who are suffering. So we really have to balance the awareness of the problem with hope, healing and some good real examples of that.”
William Mercurio, an instructor for BraveHearts and a Vietnam veteran who also participated in the Trail to Zero ride, said the 20 veterans lost to suicide each day is a “tragedy that needs to be paid attention to.”
“Ultimately, what we want to do is reduce that number to zero,” he said.
Mr. Mercurio, who served as a combat engineer for the U.S. Army and lost his son to a fentanyl overdose a couple years ago, said he was “on the brink himself.”
But horses saved him, he said, adding he is certain equine therapy can help others like him.
“You’re never too far gone,” Mr. Hedlund said, commenting on the vast number of times he had thought he had “scraped the bottom of the barrel.”
The District was just the first stop for the Trail to Zero campaign. Later this year veterans are scheduled to conduct 20-mile tours in New York City, Chicago and Houston.