There are some things you simply can’t unsee.
It’s a fact that Chaplain Drew Buckner knows well.
Buckner works alongside local first responders to provide on-site emotional support during crises through his nonprofit, Braveheart Chaplain Ministries. He’s there for the worst days — for the death of a child. A serious car crash. The suicide of a loved one. While the men and women in uniform do their duties, Buckner’s role is to look after the family and friends left behind. He’s there to provide comfort in the heat of the moment and guidance for the next steps after tragedy. When it’s all over, the second half of his job begins — helping the responders themselves to unpack what they’ve seen.
“It’s just layer upon layer — another fatality, another suicide, another child drowning — it just adds up,” he said. “It’s hard to knock on a door and tell somebody their kid died.”
Like those he counsels, Buckner is also subject to effects of witnessing continual hardships.
In the spring of 2018, he had an opportunity to focus on healing himself for a change.
Wayne Appl, operations manager at Valor Equine Therapy Service, invited Buckner to attend a two-day horse therapy workshop.
“Up until that weekend, I’ve spent less than this many hours with a horse in my entire life,” Buckner said, holding up five fingers, “And I’m 57.”
He was, by no means, a “horse person,” but Buckner felt called to give the experience a shot.
Valor offers free equine therapy for veterans and first responders suffering from prolonged stress or post-traumatic stress disorder. The latter is a mental-health condition triggered by a terrifying event that can result in flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety. While rates are higher in veterans than the general population, an estimated 8 million Americans are currently living with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Equine therapy is gaining traction across the U.S. and even the federal government is taking note — in June of last year, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a $5 million increase to fund equine programs like Valor, designed to help veterans living with PTSD.
“Horses are what I like to call 1,200-pound lie-detectors,” Appl said with a wry smile. “You can’t pull something over on a horse. They don’t care if you’re a five-star general, if you’re a private, if you’re black, if you’re white…They will mirror your emotions.”
Valor uses the Herd 2 Human program, taught by Jeff Patterson of Missoula, where participants work to establish a bond with their chosen equine through a series of exercises. They don’t ride, but rather lead and direct their equine partners, developing a bond and challenging themselves in the process.
“It was a fairly big leap for me. They’re just massive — pure muscle, this big, intimidating animal. I’m just like pat, pat, pat,” Buckner said of the initial meeting with his horse. “It was a progressive journey for me, just being comfortable around the horse.”
His hesitancy paralleled how he handled personal relationships at the time — don’t engage too much and you won’t get hurt was his driving philosophy.
But around the halfway point in the workshop, something clicked. Buckner realized that to get the most out of his time at Valor, he would need to put his reservations to bed and truly engage with the animal.
“The bond wasn’t going to happen until I quit being scared of a horse — the horse is my friend, not my enemy,” he said. “The translation for me was not about work at all, it was about my personal life, about giving myself to relationships without reservations, fear, intimidation … It made me a better chaplain, it made me a better person.”
Appl said Buckner’s transformation is not entirely unique.
“We have had several people that have said that without this program they probably wouldn’t be here now because they would have committed suicide,” Appl recalled.
It’s results like these that keep the folks at Valor inspired to keep growing. They hosted two workshops last year and hope to one day own their own facility. In 2018, the use of an arena was donated and horses were provided by Hiatt Equine Rescue and Recreation of Bigfork.
The long-term dream, Appl said, is to purchase a ranch of their own where they’ll be able to host residential programs, provide transitional housing for veterans along with continuing education. He estimates it will take about $2.2 million to turn that vision into reality and until then, the organization is focused on building awareness and helping as many veterans and first responders as they can.
On July 13, Valor will hold a demonstration of the Herd 2 Human program in partnership with the Scott Vallely Soldiers Memorial Fund.
“Twenty-two veterans kill themselves every day. More have died in the last two years than in all the wars in the last 50. It can’t go on. These guys put their lives on the line so we can live like we do,” Appl said. “There’s a lot of veterans out there that need help. You can’t make a difference in all of them but you can sure make a difference in one or two — or 12.”
Reporter Mackenzie Reiss can be reached at 758-4433 or firstname.lastname@example.org.