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Milwaukee VA Medical Center


Horses lead Vets to recovery

Marine Veteran Justin Kilishek walks with a BraveHearts’ horse around the arena. - Photo by Benjamin Slane

Marine Veteran Justin Kilishek walks with a BraveHearts’ horse around the arena. - Photo by Benjamin Slane

By Benjamin Slane
Monday, June 9, 2014


This is how Scott Meisemteimer described his horse, Boone.

Meisemteimer, a Navy Veteran, suffered a traumatic brain injury from a roadside bomb in Iraq.

“When I am up on Boone, nothing else matters,” said the former Seabee, who was part of the Navy Construction Battalion. “No PTSD, no problems. I was all smiles the entire ride.”

Veterans from the Milwaukee VA Medical Center take an hour-long journey just across the Illinois border to BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Education Center almost every week. BraveHearts gives Veterans a chance to get away from the city, the VA and life in general by providing a therapeutic equestrian experience.

A comfortable silence falls over the dusty arena. The smell of horses wafts through the air. Connections between man and animal are made.

Courtney Zeller, VA recreational therapist, has attended the trips with Veterans for more than four years.

She observes the relationships that form between Veterans and horses.

“BraveHearts helps Veterans to build self-confidence, esteem and gain trust,” said Zeller.

Zeller said the BraveHearts program is one of the best around. It provides an amount of autonomy to the Veteran by allowing them to take the reins and control the ride, if they feel comfortable.

“Compared to other facilities, these guys try to help the Veteran grow each week,” Zeller said. “They are not just another Veteran or number.”

Paddy McKevitt, BraveHearts’ director of operations, knew all the Veterans by name on the first try. A testament to the dedication BraveHearts, employees and volunteers have to Veterans.

McKevitt stood center arena and provided gentle encouragement to the riders. And when the time comes and the Veteran trusts his horse, McKevitt suggests a trot. A couple Veterans did not trot, but for those who have regained trust, the trot is like crawling. Up next, walking.

“We love our Veterans. This is what we do, we are here to be used,” Said McKevitt. “We are here to serve our Veterans.

“After all, the Veterans served us.”

For Veterans who visit a second, third, fourth or even 50th time, each time builds off the last. Some Veterans return to BraveHearts after leaving VA to continue volunteering, or even become instructors.

Sometimes there are moments when the connections are obvious. After all the other riders and horses exited the arena and the dust settled, Justin Kilishek, a former Marine, entered with the horse he rode.

In the quiet, cold barn, Zeller and volunteer Sara Thimmesch watch Kilishek. The horse bareback, Kilishek holding the lead rope.

After a few minutes, Kilishek unhooks the lead rope. The horse and Kilishek walk, side-by-side, around the arena. As the dust settles, the horse stays abreast with Kilishek.

The arena is silent as Thimmesch and Zeller talk about the connection between Kilisheck and the horse.

“This,” Thimmesch says while pointing to Kilishek and horse, “this is what it is all about. That connection, it’s just something else.”

Kilishek, pats his horse, looks up and smiles.

For more information on eligibility to enroll in equestrian therapy, contact your VA therapist or primary care provider.


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