For the first time in much too long, Keith Jermyn felt normal.
A senior chief petty officer in the Navy Seabees, a construction unit that lives by the slogan, “We build, we fight,” Jermyn has answered his country’s call again and again. Six times he has deployed overseas, including twice to Iraq. Last year he returned from the Horn of Africa, where he was deployed for more than a year. “It’s never easy, no matter how many deployments you do,” says the Hingham, Massachusetts, resident.
Back at home after his last overseas tour, Jermyn found that he was constantly on guard. He had a hard time just going to the mall with his wife, for he was always looking around, seeking escape routes. “That’s a good thing on the streets of Baghdad, but not on the streets of Boston,” he says. “It’s tough to navigate life like that.”
Jermyn knew he needed some way to find peace, so he met with Julie Lovely, MBA’07, who offers equine therapy to veterans on her horse farm in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts. Jermyn was unsure at first, having been afraid of horses his entire life, but as he groomed the beautiful animals, he found the work calming and comforting. “I was able to feel good again with myself,” he says. “It let me let my guard down. I felt normal.” When someone snapped his picture with a horse, he sent it to his mother. She was startled. “I have not seen you smile like that in years,” she told him.
The U.S. has around 22 million veterans, a large, diverse group that spans decades, from the Greatest Generation of World War II to those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. These men and women may have left the battlefield, but in the months and years after they return home, they can face struggles and battles of a more personal nature. A host of alumni have stepped up to give them support. Lovely, for instance, has long known of the therapeutic power of horses. She began offering therapy for veterans after learning of the staggering problem of suicide among those who have served. “I knew we absolutely had to add this program to our services,” she says.
Jermyn remains in gratitude for her efforts and how the horses helped lift the burden he was carrying. “Now that I’m done with the program, I miss it,” he says.
The Right Connection
Courtney Wilson, MBA’17, hates to see a veteran not receive the help he or she needs. When she thinks of a service member who has fallen through the cracks, of that stereotypical image of a man on the streets with a shopping cart and cardboard sign, she fills with frustration. “The fact that we have homeless veterans is … ,” she says, finishing the sentence with an expletive or two. “You can quote me on that,” she says.
Wilson is the founder of DropZone for Veterans, a website that aims to connect veterans with the multitude of resources available to them. “There are literally hundreds of millions of dollars available in grants and scholarships and discounted goods and services,” Wilson says. The site, which allows veterans and their caregivers to search its extensive database of resources, doesn’t focus on government programs but rather on the tens of thousands of offerings that nonprofits and corporations provide. These run the gamut: resume workshops, legal services, lower APR on a credit card, therapy sessions, service dogs, acupuncture, dental services, tax preparation, gym membership, and on and on.
Wilson says that many of these programs have been underutilized because veterans simply don’t know what’s available. Even if they do know, some are reluctant to ask for help. They may feel undeserving. “You’ll never hear a veteran asking for any of this stuff,” Wilson says. “A lot of veterans say another veteran can benefit more than them.”
Wilson hopes to change this mentality with DropZone, which she plans to launch in the Boston area this November before expanding nationwide. She says that veterans need to know there are plenty of organizations offering services. “You’re not taking anyone’s slot,” she says. “If there’s this great nonprofit and no one is using it, it goes away. If you don’t use it, no one will.”
Wilson knows the mindset of veterans so well because she is one herself. An Army captain in an engineering battalion, she served for six and a half years before her discharge in 2014. Deployed to Afghanistan in 2010-2011, she and her fellow soldiers “built anything and everything,” including forward-operating bases, security checkpoints, a highway bypass, and security improvements at a police center. The work was difficult and dangerous, and Wilson felt isolated in a male-dominated world. She told of the depression she suffered in a 2015 New York Times story, “While at War, Female Soldiers Fight to Belong.” Wilson received many emails from soldiers thanking her for her honesty, though she initially worried what those in her old unit would think of the article. “The people whose opinions I care about were happy and proud that I did that,” she says.
After her discharge, Wilson took advantage of many of those services available to veterans. One of them was a five-day, allexpenses- paid, outdoor healing retreat. The experience was so rewarding that she immediately told other veterans about it, including one of her former squad leaders, who was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder. The retreat had a great influence on him. “Oh my God, ma’am,” he told her. “This changed my life.” That reaction made Wilson, whose interest in social entrepreneurship brought her to Babson, decide to create DropZone. “All he needed was the right connection,” she says. “That made all the difference.”
Wilson says compiling a repository of services requires a lot of grunt work and networking, and she hopes to generate revenue for the site through sponsored listings and advertisements. She’ll rely on word of mouth from her fellow veterans to spread the news about DropZone. “Veterans trust each other,” says Wilson, a member of the Women Innovating Now Lab in Boston. “If you know something that can help another soldier, you tell them about it. That’s the teamwork I learned in the military.”
A good job. If someone wants to support veterans, Jesse Levin ’08 thinks providing a good job is a critical thing to do. “If you want to help, don’t thank the troops. Don’t give money,” he says. “Put them to work in a meaningful way. Make your company understand who they are and utilize them.”
Levin is the founder of Tactivate. Launched in 2010, it runs training events around the country that bring together special operations veterans—Levin labels them the “entrepreneurs of the military” because of their adaptability and resiliency—and business people, particularly entrepreneurs. He believes each group has much to gain from the other. As part of these events, veterans lead exercises that teach about structuring a team, allocating responsibility, keeping calm under pressure, and other military skills useful for starting and running organizations. In return, the veterans are exposed to the business world, a place with which they may be unfamiliar.
Levin lives a busy life that has taken him into many uncertain situations. He’s a serial entrepreneur, who among other ventures has started a pop-up nightclub in Aspen, Colorado, and a business consulting firm in Panama. He also is trained as a remote emergency medical technician and has helped with disaster response logistics in Haiti and the Philippines. In this latter role, he has worked with many military personnel and has come to admire what they can accomplish under trying circumstances. “They’re incredibly dynamic individuals,” he says. “You could team up with three veterans and get more done in a week than you can ever imagine. The idea of not being able to get it done doesn’t exist in their world.”
Despite their skills, veterans can search in vain for rewarding work once they leave the service. “It’s a scary, unclear transition,” says Levin. “These guys struggle with meaning and purpose. There’s a lot of talk about veterans being assets, but people don’t know how to activate these guys.” With his Tactivate events, he hopes entrepreneurs and business people will get to know veterans and see how their skills can be utilized in a business sense. “Veterans need more than resumes and LinkedIn profiles,” he says. “They need to be told and taught how their skills are transferable.”
While Tactivate operates nationwide, Levin is working on finding the organization a permanent home base that will be run by special-operations veterans and function partly as a training facility and partly as a social club. To further expose veterans to business, the organization also occasionally launches ventures, such as Mortar and Pistil, a military-themed bar in Miami. All this activity serves a higher purpose. “I think society needs help, and these guys are the answer,” Levin says. “They are the greatest untapped asset this country has.”
The Healing of Horses
Visit Julie Lovely’s horse farm, and one of the first things you notice is the calm. Lovely felt it right away when she looked at the property. “It’s an intangible thing,” she says. “Everyone comments on it.”
The farm, along with Lovely’s house, sits on a cozy two acres. It’s home to two horses, Kipper and Izzy, and two miniature horses, Jimmy and Bootsie, along with two barnyard cats who meander around the property. Outside of crickets and the occasional neighing of a horse, it’s a quiet place. Here veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and other invisible wounds of war come to learn horsemanship. They’re taught how to groom horses, how to perceive the animals’ body language and communication, and how to lead them, getting the animals to walk, trot, and canter. In the process, the veterans learn to cope with their distress. “They breathe with the horses and enjoy the moment,” Lovely says. “It’s peaceful.”
Horses have been a part of Lovely’s life since she was 10, when her first riding lesson turned her into a “horse-crazy kid.” From the sixth grade through college, she volunteered at a therapeutic riding program. She saw the healing power of the animals, once witnessing a nonverbal boy with autism speak his first words while handling a horse. But she didn’t realize how much she would need that healing herself.
Just before she graduated from college, a fire ripped through her apartment. Lovely wasn’t home at the time, but all her possessions were destroyed. The experience scarred her. She felt on edge. She couldn’t sleep. “I didn’t realize it was PTSD,” she says. “I was really struggling, trying not to sink into anxiety and depression.” For a while during this dark time, Lovely didn’t have access to horses. But once she was able to ride again, she felt her symptoms soothed. “Horses pulled me out of this,” says Lovely, who realized that she wanted to quit her job as a graphic artist and make a new career working with the animals.
Lovely eventually moved to the farm, received certification from the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International, and launched the Wild Hearts Therapeutic Equestrian Program in 2009. She began its veterans’ offshoot, Wild Hearts Horses for Heroes, in 2014. Veterans never have to pay to attend, Lovely says, and Wild Hearts holds an annual dinner and auction to raise money. In a typical year, though, the organization only receives enough donations to cover expenses, and Lovely doesn’t collect a salary. She relies on her husband’s support, and the warmth she feels for the horses and the people she helps, to keep Wild Hearts going. “We aren’t helping a lot of people every year, but those we do help, it’s very important to them,” she says.
During sessions, veterans work with a horse trainer and a volunteer (fellow Babsonites Jen Goddard ’94 and Jessica Normand, MBA’18, respectively), and Lovely offers assistance as needed. A therapist is also on hand but not directly involved in the sessions. Lovely talked with veterans before starting Wild Hearts, and she decided that a “touchy-feely” program wasn’t the way to go. “What I heard over and over is that veterans get so much therapy, they don’t want to sit down with another therapist,” she says.
Horses, however, are an effective form of therapy. They serve as a mirror to one’s emotions; if someone feels anxious and stressed, the horse will reflect that. “You can try to cover up how you’re feeling, but the horse is able to sense it,” Lovely says. “You can’t lie to a horse.” Veterans also identify with the hypervigilant nature of a horse. The animals are always ready to take flight. “When you work with a horse, you have to be aware of that and manage that,” Lovely says. “You have to get them to trust you.”
Veterans make discoveries about themselves in the process. Lovely once watched as a veteran guided a horse around a pen, but every time the animal came close to him, it took off at a gallop. Again and again this happened. Lovely finally asked the veteran why the horse kept taking off. He realized he was doing the same thing with the people in his life. Every time they got too close, he pushed them away.
Wild Hearts is actually one of two alumni programs that offer equine therapy for veterans. Rob Miller ’69, P’02, is the founder and CEO of Mending Fences in Ocala, Florida. The addiction rehabilitation center opened earlier this year and has room for 24 patients, though Miller is planning to expand. He hopes to serve a range of distinct populations, including veterans, adolescents, first responders, and ex-athletes.
A successful real-estate developer and businessman in Palm Beach, Miller is a horse aficionado. “It started as a hobby for my son and myself, and it’s turned into more than a hobby,” he says. He owns a horse farm, and he breeds and races the animals.
Opening a treatment center employing equine therapy wasn’t something he intended to do. He originally owned a horse rehabilitation facility on the site. Then came tragedy, which has driven Miller ever since. “I’m trying to make one of the worst events of my life into something good,” he says. On Feb. 10, 2012, a date burned into Miller’s memory, an accident happened inside the rehabilitation facility’s hyperbaric chamber. The kicks of an unsettled horse caused sparks, which led to an explosion. Erica Marshall, a technician, was killed. The blast also killed the horse and injured an intern.
Miller was devastated. In the aftermath, his family advised him to move on from the site and its tragic history. But Miller said no. He wanted to reopen with a higher sense of purpose. What that would be, he didn’t know, until he saw Crazy Heart, the Jeff Bridges movie about a down-and-out country singer who struggles with alcoholism but finally goes to rehab and finds sobriety and a chance at redemption. The film inspired Miller. “I came out of the movie saying, this is what I want to do,” he says.
Deciding to convert the old site into a rehab center, Miller began visiting facilities across the country for ideas. One in particular stood out, an eight-day retreat in Virginia for veterans who were suicidal and suffering from PTSD. He remembers one veteran who had done four tours of duty and been shot in the head. The veteran didn’t talk, but his demeanor changed as he interacted with a horse. He kissed the animal and put his arm around its neck, which left an impression on Miller. Despite his passion for horses, he had no idea about the potential effects of equine therapy. “I watched him touch a horse for the first time in his life, and for two hours, he couldn’t keep his hands off the horse,” Miller says. “It was compelling. I cried.”
Retired horses provide the equine therapy at his new center, Miller says, and he’ll raise scholarship money so that veterans selected to attend won’t have to pay, even if they lack adequate insurance. To build Mending Fences, which is named in memory of a much-loved race horse owned by the Millers, has been an expensive undertaking, Miller concedes, and profitability is still a way off. But the center already succeeded in its main goal: to create something good out of tragedy. “The place is extraordinary,” Miller says. “We’re helping people.”