By Andra Bryan Stefanoni
DIAMOND, Mo. —
Joel Alexander doesn’t remember much about the improvised explosive device along the Iraqi roadside. He just knows it tripped when he and members of his transportation unit drove by loaded with supplies.
A sergeant in the U.S. Army, Alexander had been deployed to Mosul in northern Iraq in 2004. Later that year, he became one of the tens of thousands of veterans who survived the war, but returned to the United States a wounded warrior. Some injuries were visible; others were not.
“I had two traumatic brain injuries that erased my memory from before Iraq,” Alexander said. He takes his time when speaking about events eight years ago.
Physical injuries were compounded by post-traumatic stress disorder, making it difficult to return to civilian life. According to the Veterans Administration, nearly 10,000 new cases of PTSD are diagnosed every three months in veterans who have returned from Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands of these veterans struggle with nervous disorders, anger, stress and trust issues.
But Alexander and other veterans are receiving help from a longtime ally of earlier generations of warriors — the horse.
Ozark Center has partnered with Magic Moments Riding Therapy and the Wounded Warrior Project to offer horse therapy to Alexander and other veterans.
“We know it works. There is plenty of research that shows it does. We don’t know what elements or at what dosage it works. A fair amount of research is focusing on that now,” said Del Camp, vice president of operations at Ozark Center, the behavioral arm of Freeman Health System.
After the IED explosion, Alexander eventually ended up at Fort Leonard Wood for what the military called a “medical hold.” It was there that a John Brummet, a Diamond resident and also a veteran, observed Alexander’s uneven gait and balance issues.
“He’d lightly bump the wall, and I knew he had something going on with spatial awareness and his stride,” said Brummet, who served a tour in Iraq with the 203rd Engineer Battalion of the Missouri National Guard. Brummet had sustained injuries to his spine and hip, perhaps from jumping in and out of trucks with 160-pound rucksacks or working on building base camps near Baghdad.
While Brummet struggled with that, Alexander wrestled mostly with his mental issues.
“I couldn’t remember things. I didn’t know if I had eaten already or taken my meds,” Alexander said. “I had anger issues.”
Perhaps most troubling, Alexander would encounter another person and not be able to initiate a conversation.
“He would just stand there,” Brummet said. “He just couldn’t speak. If someone said something to him, he could respond. So I would say he had the better physical capacity, such as it was, and I had the better mental capacity.”
The two vets formed a team.
“I could remind him that yes, we’ve already eaten lunch, and he would do the driving. We had a good partnership,” Brummet said.
He soon invited Alexander to his home in Diamond for a weekend at Magic Moments Riding Therapy, which his family started in 1998. Located on 36 acres, it includes a heated, handicapped-accessible indoor riding arena, an outdoor riding arena and other features.
There, John’s mother, Jeanne, and certified staff have for years offered services to children confined to wheelchairs, those who suffer speech and language impediments, and those who need to improve their self-esteem.
“We started coming down on Friday nights, and they’d put him through a riding session on Saturday,” Brummet said of Alexander’s time there.
“He got interested in riding the horse, and afterward I observed he would walk down the hallway and it had improved his stride. I’ve seen riding a horse do that for people with cerebral palsy, spina bifida.”
Those around him began seeing a difference, and so did Alexander.
“Just being around the animals helped me kind of calm down, learn how to walk again, how to deal with things,” Alexander said. “I’m not sure exactly how it works, but horses, I think, mimic how a human walks, so I guess that helped my brain sort of figure out and reprogram itself.”
The Brummets sought sponsorship from local supporters, and Alexander was signed on for six months of therapy. Within just a month or two, Alexander had a breakthrough.
“They were about to instruct him to do something with the reins and he did it first. He realized he used to ride. He’d been involved with horses before, but had no idea,” Brummet said.
Alexander, who eventually returned to the St. James area, said he still is on the path to healing and recovery, and horses continue to play a role.
“I’m getting ready to have surgery on my neck and shoulder, and I still have PTSD issues,” he said. “But after working with Magic Moments, I decided to get my own horses — three of them — so now I get to see them every day.”
Alexander also now has a fiancé, and plans on marrying “sometime in the future.” While he isn’t able to hold down a job yet, he’s trying to make a difference by serving as a fellow in the Mission Continues program based in St. Louis. His first project was to help in the renovation of a senior citizen center in nearby Rolla and he’s enjoyed working with children in 4-H clubs.
‘A True Bond’
The Brummets suspected that if horse therapy worked for Alexander, it might work for other veterans.
“We were offered the opportunity to work with veterans who will be funded through the Wounded Warrior at no cost at all to the veterans,” said Jeanne Brummet, John’s mother and executive director of Magic Moments.
Magic Moments is accredited through the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship. Therapy lasts for 10 weeks, with one session per week, and is open to any veteran in service after Sept. 11, 2001.
“There’s a lot of possibility with therapeutic treatment,” Jeanne Brummet said. “We can work on their physical needs. If they have poor balance, if they have trouble walking, or if they have trouble with other parts of their body, we can help rehabilitate them.
John Brummet, ironically, is one person who can’t be healed by riding horses.
“No one figured it out for a couple years,” said Brummet, referring to his injuries. “By that time, all the ligaments didn’t hold anything in place; my hips were unstable.”
Having worked at Magic Moments since age 15, he planned to return to instructing there after his service.
“Horses always have been a part of my life. I started at 15 in stalls, grooming, in classes as a side walker,” Brummet said. “When we moved here, I became a teaching assistant, and liked it so much I became an instructor.”
Also once active in soccer and martial arts, the 37-year-old now uses a cane.
“I can’t even sit up some nights. It’s gotten worse. Mine is an injury that riding a horse won’t help. It’s ironic,” he said.
But Brummet has found personal therapy for his post-war issues in another way: simply interacting with the horses.
“The horses will start interacting with you, showing affection. Horses are independent, so when they hook up with you, it is a bond. A true bond.”
Camp, from Ozark Center, agrees that equine therapy need not all be done from the back of a horse: Approaching the horse in the arena, brushing it, taking care of the tack, putting the tack on — all contribute to a relationship with the animal.
“Just as those who have been in battle, horses rely on their senses for survival, reacting almost instinctively to emotions and perceived threats,” Camp said. “A negative emotion from a human evokes a negative emotion from the horse. Alternatively, a positive emotion from humans evokes the same in horses.”
Brummet plans to help veterans by serving as an ambassador for them when they arrive at Magic Moments.
“This has been my dream, since I was over there in Iraq, for our program to help veterans. My role now will be to meet them when they get here, help them get settled in, answer any questions they have,” he said.
‘Help out there’
Brummet believes his understanding of what fellow veterans might be going through is of value.
“It was tense over there. ... We didn’t know who to trust. We’d get nervous if a civilian vehicle passed us because if it darted in front of you it could be there to blow you up or open fire,” he said. “The danger is always in the back of your mind. And that feeling becomes the normal — that feeling of tense and on edge.”
“You stop thinking about you’re feeling different — that’s just how things are. You get back here and you’re still feeling that way. Things aren’t like that here, though. Your family is relaxed, able to go out to eat, not be tense, not be watching, waiting.
“Me, I have been driving down the road and have seen a bag of trash or a dead animal, and my automatic reaction is it could be an IED. I’d have trouble when my family took me out to dinner. Who was in the crowd? Who is your friend and who is not? When you’re in a room full of civilians, that could mean danger. I was used to being relaxed only when I was eating shoulder-to-shoulder with guys in uniform.”
Each class in the horse therapy program will be taught by a PATH-certified instructor with the assistance of several trained volunteers. Veterans will be encouraged to progress at their own pace, according to their individual abilities. Basic instruction will include grooming, tacking, horsemanship and riding skills. Classes also will include exercise, games and more.
Camp believes it could be just what veterans need, in combination with clinical therapy.
“The military are overwhelmed with the mental health needs, and have reached out to community mental health agencies like Ozark Center,” Camp said. “It is really critical to get the word out that there is help out there.”