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VFW Magazine January 2017 : Page 21

TOP: Mitchell Hedlund stands with his horse, Mighty. Hedlund, an Afghanistan War veteran, rides horses to help ease his back pain and PTSD symptoms. BOTTOM: Participants of Operation Mustang through BraveHearts wait to show their horse-gentling tactics at Cheyenne Frontier Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., in July. The 11 veterans gentled 22 wild horses during the 10-day event. a priority for BraveHearts. In 2013, the organization added Operation Mustang, which allows vet-erans to handle wild horses purchased from the state. “We love getting to the vets who don’t want to leave their homes and are really struggling,” Hill-McQueeney said. “The wild horse is really a draw. Mustangs are very fractious. You can’t touch them. They’ve been transported and removed from their families and what’s familiar.” Hill-McQueeney likened mustangs to combat vets experiencing PTSD symp-toms. “They are hyper vigilant,” Hill-McQueeney said. “They are aware and fearful. They only know flight or fight. You can’t touch them, halter them, brush them, pick up their feet or saddle them until they trust you.” RIDING AS AN ALTERNATIVE Equine therapy is just one option for vet-erans to pursue while treating PTSD. Formerly known as complementary and alternative medicine, mainstream doctors (including VA) now refer to this form of health care as “complementary and inte-grative,” according to Dr. Harold Kudler, chief of VA’s mental health services. “We talk about equine therapy for peo-ple with PTSD, and a vet might go on an organized trip where they groom, train and walk with horses,” Dr. Kudler said. “They don’t have to ride them. Other peo-ple do trout fishing. [VA] vet centers have been taking veterans on trips to local pre-sentations of the traveling wall, or a small-er scale monument or to Washington D.C. This has been going on for years. Is that treatment? I think it is.” Kudler cited one study on acupunc-ture that showed it could be helpful in treatment of PTSD. He said he has seen this type of “out-of-office” treatment work in his own medical practice. “It’s certainly our stance in the VA that many people who have PTSD may not be cured but live substantially better lives [through complementary and inte-grative health care],” Kudler said. Mitchell Hedlund is proof that, beyond emotional healing, these types of therapies can be physically beneficial. Hedlund was injured as a result of a rocket-propelled grenade exploding near him in Afghanistan in 2012. Between his wounds and the strain of carrying between “150 to 300 pounds” on his back every day while deployed, he suf-fers from chronic back pain that keeps him wheelchair-bound most of the time. “The pain was unbearable,” he said. “On top of that, I was falling over a lot, so I couldn’t be trusted to walk. [Riding] keeps my sanity, but it also helps me get up in the morning. I know my back pain is going to be a lot better after I ride.” Hedlund’s mom first brought him to BraveHearts in 2015. “I’d never ridden a horse before,” Hedlund said. “I really was scared.” Now the former member of Post 1461 rides at least three times per week. Hedlund’s horse is called Mighty, a 5-year-old mustang, which he charac-terized as “stubborn as heck” and on the smaller side for a male horse. A self-described “big dude,” Hedlund laughed when he illustrated how odd it looks to have a large man on a small horse. “It looks funny, but he carries me around like nothing,” Hedlund said. Hedlund and Reno are roommates, and are going through the process together. “We both ride,” Hedlund said. “We both do Operation Mustang. We’re both becoming instructors. We’re there to help ourselves but also to help other vets.” JANUARY 2017   • WWW.VFW.ORG • 21

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