November 18, 2014
Jeff Hensley

What do you do when you have all the puzzle pieces needed to serve veterans but not enough manpower to put them in place? Call The Mission Continues!

I’m the Program Counselor at Equest, a Dallas-area non-profit that has helped special needs children and adults through the power of equine therapy for over three decades. Two years ago, Equest began the “Hooves for Heroes” program, leveraging their expertise in equine therapy to help transitioning veterans and military families. We’ve accomplished much, but the need is great.

Since 2012, Equest has served almost 100 Hooves for Heroes participants. This unique and flexible form of therapy reaches veterans and military family members in a way that is non-threatening, yet highly therapeutic. Wellness is our goal and working with horses offers many ways to achieve it.

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For starters, the ranch setting is peaceful and serene, a welcome break from civilian transitions that are sometimes chaotic and stressful. Supportive volunteers, staff and peers encourage participants to push themselves as they master new skills and become better horsemen. For those struggling to manage the basics of civilian life, this experience can rebuild self-esteem and restore their sense of competence.

For the past year, Hooves for Heroes has operated at its capacity. Still, interested veterans continue to reach out almost daily and our wait list grows longer.

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Through a partnership with the City of Dallas, Equest secured a lease on a second property called The Texas Horse Park, giving us the potential to significantly expand our veterans program. But the facility was raw with a great deal of additional work needed before Equest could clear its wait list. Given our very small Equest staff, it seemed a heavy lift.

Enter The Mission Continues. Since 2007, this organization has awarded six-month fellowships to post-9/11 veterans, empowering them to change the nation through community service. Veterans across the country both inspire others through their example and gain a renewed sense of purpose, something that is often lost in the transition to civilian life. As an alumni of the Fellowship Program, I know this organization well.

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Recently, The Mission Continues has begun to scale their positive impact by organizing local Service Platoons. These platoons bring together veterans of all eras and civilian supporters to engage in long-term, focused community service that strengthens our towns and models responsible citizenship.

One of these platoons is right here in Dallas. I’m proud to be one of its Squad Leaders.

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Last week, Dallas/Ft. Worth Service Platoon joined employee volunteers from Lockheed Martin (corporate sponsor for the Dallas Ft. Worth Service Platoon) to prep Equest’s new facility. We were assisted by members of IAVA and Team Rubicon as well as volunteers and staff from Equest.

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As the group of 40 got to work, it quickly became apparent that the heavy lift wasn’t so heavy. One team tackled the installation of floor covering called “stall mats.” The mats are heavy and bulky, but a barn necessity prior to housing horses. After fumbling around initially, the team installed all 40 stall mats in under three hours. A second team ripped out hundreds of yards of barbed wire from ancient fence lines, which posed a potential hazard to riders. A third policed the area of trash and debris. A fourth manned lawnmowers, weed-eaters, edgers, and leaf-blowers to smooth out the rough edges and give the facility a welcoming feel. A smaller support team passed out water and snacks and prepared lunch for the hungry volunteers.

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On our own, these tasks would have taken the Equest team weeks to accomplish. Instead, we will spend that time serving our veterans and military families.

These dedicated volunteers no doubt performed an invaluable service to both Equest and our community. But what truly struck me was something less tangible. I watched combat veterans and civilians laughing, slapping each other on the back, and working together to accomplish some very difficult tasks. As they did, I sensed the group gaining profound respect for one another despite their different backgrounds. United in service, this group bridged the divide between them by committing to a common mission. It was pretty cool to see.

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Looking ahead I can’t help but feel hopeful. What transpired in those few short hours at the Texas Horse Park will happen again — and again and again. There’s no way to tell for sure where it will all lead, but one thing’s for certain: it will be someplace good. In the meantime, Equest now has an empty waiting list.

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Jeff Hensley is an alum of The Mission Continues Fellowship Program and a Squad Leader for Dallas-Ft.Worth Service Platoon. He currently works as a Program Counselor at Equest, a nonprofit that helps special needs children and adults through equine therapy.