soldier walking with horse

Easing the Path to Re-Entry for Military Personnel

For those service personnel who return to civilian life instead of remaining on active duty, re-entry challenges are especially strong. Their communities, coworkers, families, and friends have inevitably grown and changed, and they’ve been changed by experiences that are not easily shared.

The Sea of Goodwill effort, both locally and nationally, aims to find ways to ease the path to re-entry for military personnel.

sea of goodwill committee members

Sea of Goodwill – Equine Program

GIFT FOR EQUINE THERAPY – From left, are Sea of Goodwill Committee Chairman Michael Cartney, Colonel (ret) USAF; Doug Sharp and Jan DeBerg Watertown Area Community Foundation executive director. Watertown Sharp Toyota donated $10,000 recently to the Sea of Goodwill Equine Therapy Program in the works at Joy Ranch. Toyota matched the gift making the total support $20,000.

Published 2013
EDITOR’S NOTE: The local Sea of Goodwill, initiated by the Watertown Community Foundation connects  veterans, service members, their families and employers to assistance and benefits. That support may be official, like the Veterans Administration, or unofficial, encompassing people willing to give of their time, talent or treasure to the effort. Veterans, their families and employers of veterans who need help are encouraged to call 605-882-5620 for assistance in finding the support they need in a confidential manner.

Some horses train to race in the Kentucky Derby or “wow” audiences in Equestrian shows and rodeos. Some work the ranch; still others give strong, yet quiet, “therapy” to those who need it. While there’s no Kentucky Derby here, all those involved in our local Sea of Goodwill’s Equine Therapy program, believe the effort will create its own wins – one person/family at a time.  And now, through the generosity of a Watertown couple, Joy Nelson’s vision for Equine Therapy for military heroes is being launched.

Doug and Lynn Sharp’s love for horses and a passion to proactively help veterans re-entering society, made the decision to support Equine Therapy an easy one. Sharp Toyota of Watertown gave $10,000 and Toyota corporate matched that for a total donation of $20,000.

“The Sea of Goodwill is extremely grateful for the gift from Sharp’s and Toyota,” said Jan DeBerg. “Their donation will launch equine therapy for veterans and their families at Joy Ranch.  This effort will also provide another valuable option for judges in Codington County’s Veterans Court procedure, in the works as a result of an initiative by the Governor.”

“The caring nature of Watertown, and especially individuals like Doug and Lynn Sharp, never cease to amaze me.  We are honored to be of service to the Sharp’s, Joy Ranch, and Human Service Agency in this project,” said Sea of Goodwill Chairman Michael Cartney, Colonel (ret) USAF.  “The Equine Therapy program fills a crucial need, not just for the veteran, but to help the whole family.  And it has the potential to become a national center assisting heroes from across the US.”

Why equine therapy?  Why Watertown?  “It’s just an idea I had,” said Joy Nelson, Joy Ranch benefactor. “Having done a little research on the vet – horse subject, I decided it was time to get a few key people at the table to try to implement a program. After all, that is why Joy Ranch is here: To help as many people as possible in as many ways as we can.”

“We are laying the groundwork to be able to offer what I think will be a life-changing opportunity for people struggling with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder,” said Betsy Debertin, co-director of Joy Ranch. “The key is that it is very much partnership focused.”

That partnership, including Watertown’s Sea of Goodwill, Joy Ranch and the Human Service Agency, started last April. Once the partnership was there, another essential key factor is ongoing support, both monetarily and otherwise. Thus far, the local Sea of Goodwill effort has received outstanding support from the Watertown community, and the Equine Therapy extension is no exception.

Jo Vitek has seen first-hand many instances in which a hurting veteran didn’t know where to turn. But it goes even deeper than that. “My father was an ordinary man who, like many veterans, did some extra-ordinary things during the war,” she said. “There was no fanfare when they came back. And we didn’t even know then that there was such a thing as PTSD. My dad is dead and gone, but now I know why he had so many nightmares.”

Equine therapy has shown to have many positive benefits when correctly taught by certified therapists, which Joy Ranch will have two of, said Dr. Chuck Sherman, Human Service Agency CEO, who is serving as a consultant to the local Equine Therapy program. Some of those benefits include: confidence, self-efficacy, self-concept, communication, trust, perspective, decreased isolation, self-acceptance, impulse control, social skills and boundaries. “Equine therapy has shown great promise for people with PTSD. It will be beneficial for anyone with PTSD and others, including children and adolescents with anything from Autism to emotional issues. However, there was a particular interest through Sea of Goodwill to develop this kind of program for a vet who may be having difficulties with post deployment.”

This particular Equine Therapy doesn’t involve riding. Through horse interaction, the therapy focuses on connection, trust, and an unconditional, nonjudgmental relationship, he said. Horses are large and powerful, which creates a natural opportunity for some to overcome fear and develop confidence. Accomplishing a task involving the horse, in spite of any fears, creates confidence and provides for other potential successes when dealing with other intimidating and challenging situations in life. Horses are sensitive to nonverbal communication and respond to messages the client gives them in the moment.

Just knowing there are programs like this out there to help, can make a veteran more secure, agreed Dick Stricherz of Watertown. Stricherz served from 1956 to 1979 and although he has learned to cope, still suffers with PTSD. During one of his tours as flight deck chief for the squadron on the USS Constellation, there was a horrendous fire that broke out in the compartment next to him. After 48 hours on deck, Stricherz went to his compartment for rest. A half hour later, he woke abruptly to find the ship in peril. Then, he fought his own battle trying to reach the fifth level during the fire as the rest of the crew kept closing the hatches due to the fire. “To this day, I always have a window open in the car when I’m driving, and a window open in my house,” Stricherz said. “The feeling of being trapped is terrible.”

That was the main incident to ignite his PTSD, but it was fueled by America’s response to him and other veterans of his time coming home. “We were treated like war criminals,” he said. “That was part of our trauma. People welcomed us with baseball bats and threatened our lives.”

In some ways, things are different for the troops now. Regardless, PTSD is a very real part of many vets’ lives upon their return. “That is why there is so much suicide,” Stricherz said. They may not have lost their lives at war, but many are losing them with their personal battles at home because they don’t know where to turn. Stricherz believes Sea of Goodwill and Equine Therapy will be a good direction for vets. In addition, Stricherz’ experience in war and as a chemical dependency counselor in northeast South Dakota, has prompted him to implement his own counseling program for veterans.

PTSD comes in all shapes and sizes, Stricherz's said, recalling a man who, as a child, lost his brother in the war. That is what triggered his PTSD. There are women and others who are brutally attacked who have PTSD. “Doing something about it is very important,” he added. “It’s not enough to know PTSD exists.”

“The veterans have given us a lot,” Sharp concluded. “We believe a little bit of help at the proper time in their lives may go a long way as far as righting their world.”

I also like the grassroots portion of it. In talking with Jo and Jan, they are hoping this program evolves into a national effort to help veterans.

Cartney agreed wholeheartedly. “We hope to see this program become a national program and we are proud Joy Ranch has taken this on here in Watertown, SD.”