By noon Saturday, Horses for Heroes had sold out of Boston butts for its fundraiser and volunteers were busy spooning out sides for the barbecue chicken dinners they had left, and as they wrapped up around 2 p.m. they raised over $1,200.
Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center, certified through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, has helped launch the first program providing horseback riding lessons to help wounded veterans in the state. Nationally, the Horses for Heroes program has been helping America’s bravest since 2007.
As volunteers were shuffling about outside helping dole out information, serving meals and collect money, Kraig Gates tried to coax his 3-year-old — almost 4-year-old — nephew off the drums inside Brookstone Community Church’s worship center.
“He’s different from the average child his age. He’s like my shadow; he’s like my son too,” Gates said.
Gates was the first rider for the Horses for Heroes program at FETC. Ten years ago, he was a seaman in the U.S. Navy stationed in the Persian Gulf. In 2001, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and was discharged from his duties. He was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and remembers that time as dormant, isolated.
Taking a suggestion from his advocate in the federal Independent Living Program for disabled veterans, Bruce McCartney, Gates started in the Horses for Heroes program in June.
“(I like) being in touch with nature, being out in nature,” he said. “When you ride, you feel free. You don’t have too much to be bothered by with the stresses of life. You feel unhurried; you can feel easy, at ease to be on that horse and riding.”
Gates said he can be on time now and that he doesn’t feel anxious about being around people anymore.
“It helps to build your independence. It gives you a feeling of importance, like you can do something; life is not over just because you have a disability,” he said.
Leeann and Doug Marrie are active volunteers at FETC and oversee the Horses for Heroes program there. Doug Marrie said that it’s difficult to get the word out about the program to the community, local veterans and veterans organizations.
“We’re just here to love on them,” he said.
The couple is hoping to be an autonomous nonprofit. They are looking at buying property around Fort Stewart for Horses for Heroes in order to be closer and more available to the veterans in need of these services.