UNIONTOWN, Ohio (AP) — For an entire year, Michael Kuhn visited the horses. Always alone, on Sundays.
Kuhn, an 82nd Airborne Iraq veteran, started out slowly, by feeding the horses, by being close to them.
“I would come up here and bring 30 pounds of apples every Sunday, cut them up and walk around and feed all the horses,” said Kuhn, 30, who now acknowledges he suffered from the after-effects of war — post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — for years after he finished his enlistment in 2005.
Then, something happened.
“I finally realized that I feel happy,” he said. “Horses are always cool, calm and collected. . They need our help as much as we need theirs.”
It was a more than a year ago that Kuhn’s mother, Susan O’Connor — a mother of four children who have all served in the military with a combined six overseas deployments — began encouraging him to visit Solid Rock Therapeutic Riding Center in Lake Township.
The nonprofit center, open for only the past three years, offers free riding services to veterans and their families.
Kuhn and several Gold Star family members — relatives of those who have died overseas — are part of a military fraternity that works with horses at Solid Rock as part of their recovery from war or the loss of a loved one.
“We believe our veterans and their families have already paid the ultimate price,” said Nicki VonGunten, a founder of Solid Rock and the center’s executive director. “We have a policy: If a soldier is in crisis, I don’t care if it is 3 o’clock in the morning,” they can use the facility for as long as they need “if that’s what it takes to save a life.”
Kathy and Frank Patron, parents of Marine Sgt. Daniel J. Patron, 26, who was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011, began spending time at the center in August, around the second anniversary of their son’s death.
Kathy Patron, 55, a speech teacher at Perry High, spends time at the farm every week. She grooms a rescued horse named after her son, Danny Boy.
“I am channeling my son Danny,” she said of her time at the riding center. “There is something very spiritual about spending time with a horse. I look into his eyes and he is so soulful. His temperament is so like my son.”
Since the death of her son, she said, she believes that when a door opens, she and her family must see what is on the other side.
“I would take Danny back in a heartbeat,” Patron said. But when she heard from O’Connor about healing through horses, she knew she had to go to Solid Rock.
“We have to cross through it for him,” she said.
Thea Glover Dryden, 51, of Plain Township, also has become a regular after learning about Solid Rock through O’Connor. Her daughter, Marine Lance Cpl. Stacy Ann “Annie” Dryden, died of noncombat injuries in Iraq on Oct. 19, 2008. She was 22.
“I feel so comfortable up there,” Dryden said. “I feel when I am up there, I am still sharing my daughter’s life.”
She said spending time with the horses resulted in her meeting Kuhn. The two have become good friends.
Dryden works with a horse named Annie’s Hope, one of three rescued horses bought by Solid Rock through a donation by the Private Heath Warner Memorial Fund. The family of Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, 19, of Canton, established the fund after his death in Iraq on Nov. 22, 2006.
Other rescued horses at Solid Rock named after fallen men or women are: Jay, named after Navy Pilot 1st Lt. Jason Manse, 30, a Canton Central Catholic graduate who flew missions in Iraq at the beginning of the war and was killed in a flight training accident in Georgia in January 2006 with three others; Heath Bar, named for Pvt. Heath Warner; and Courage, named for all veterans and families.
Dryden said that before she began visiting the horses regularly and spending time with friends she has made at Solid Rock, the death of her daughter left her feeling no peace.
“That is my place I go to to feel peace,” she said.
When she brushes Annie’s Hope, she feels an intense spark and connection.
“As I am brushing her, I say, ‘I love you, Annie,’?” she said.
Kuhn, a 2002 Perry High graduate, enlisted three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He made 37 jumps as an Army paratrooper.
He took part in the initial invasion of Iraq and was in that country for a year until February 2004.
Kuhn said he has never sought help for PTSD through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but now that he has spent time with the horses, he realizes he has been suffering from the aftermath of war.
“It was never something I actually believed in,” he said.
Ironically, the animals that now calm Kuhn had always frightened him. Finally, in August, after a year of grooming and feeding the horses, he rode one for the first time.
“As soon as I jumped on him, I started sweating,” Kuhn said.
O’Connor knew that her son was suffering silently from PTSD. She took classes at the Red Cross and the VA to better understand his condition.
She worried he might even try to take his own life.
“It has been a very emotional, turbulent situation because while my son left (the Middle East), he didn’t come back home,” she said. “He is fighting a very hard battle internally.”
When her son was in his darkest hours, she would say he was “down under.”
Solid Rock, she said, “is healing him. This is bringing him back.”
Solid Rock’s VonGunten said the tough part of dealing with veterans is often they “don’t want to admit they have a problem.”
She said the staff at the equine center uses “a side-door approach. You are not going to come at them head-on because they will shut down and not come.”
VonGunten said Kuhn and Teddy, the first horse he rode, are now extremely close.
“He has a soft eye with Mike,” she said. “I get goose bumps” watching Kuhn work with the horses.
Kuhn said that before discovering Solid Rock, he worked at an area company, “locked myself in the house and didn’t want to deal with anybody.”
Now, he spends as much time at the farm as he can, not only around the horses but around clients who spend time during the day at the Solid Rock Adult Day Center, an endeavor for adults with disabilities that is also housed at the farm.
He said while he still does not intend to seek treatment at the VA, he would be happy to talk to any veteran in need about how Teddy and the other horses have helped him.
“I want to pay it forward to help out as much as they have helped me,” he said.
Kuhn called the horses and the farm his “saving grace” and “the final match in my darkest hours.”
Solid Rock, he said, “lit everything back up. This place consumes me.”
Information from: Akron Beacon Journal, http://www.ohio.com