WESTERN HORSEMAN MAGAZINE
An estimated 22 veterans commit suicide each day. The institution meant to help them, the Department of Veterans Affairs, has been rocked by scandal. Meanwhile, a surge in horse-based therapy programs offers hope for bringing at-risk veterans back from the brink. Can equine therapy help save America’s wounded military veterans?
On New Year’s Eve in 2012, Matt Littrell lay awake in his home on the Front Range of Colorado. The Marine Corps veteran felt alone. He’d served two tours of duty in Iraq, and then moved home to work as a farrier with his dad. Being around family was nice, but he missed his brothers in arms. Only they could relate to what he’d been through in war. The memories of that experience held him in a constant state of anger. Something had to change. Littrell set a handgun on the table and stared at it, wondering if it was the answer.
Instead of the gun, Littrell picked up the phone. He dialed the VA Crisis Line. That’s when a strange thing happened: The person on the other end was not helpful. To Littrell, it sounded like the attendant was reading from a script. Fortunately, Littrell had already made up his mind to put the gun away. But what if he hadn’t? He imagined one of his fellow Marines, in a more suicidal state, making the same, frustrating call and being pushed over the edge.
Littrell became an advocate, not a victim. He made a plan to raise awareness about the problem of suicide among military veterans.
“I was going to adopt and train a mustang,” Littrell says, “and ride him from ocean to ocean.”
He called the trip “The Long Trail Home” to symbolize the hard journey a veteran must travel to, as he puts it, “rejoin society and get right with yourself again.” In the spring of 2013, Littrell bought and trained a Bureau of Land Management mustang named Crow. One year later, he trailered Crow to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and on May 1, 2014, they rode away from the Atlantic Ocean. Six months and 2,600 miles later, they reached the Pacific Ocean at Camp Pendleton, California – a Marine base where Littrell had served.
Along the way, Littrell spoke with people about the suicide epidemic among military veterans. He also raised $130,000 for the Semper Fi Fund, a group that helps wounded Marines. Just as important, Littrell rode himself away from the brink of suicide.