Veterans ride to the rescue as pandemic threatens Horses & Warriors program

Veterans Mike Vernon (left) and Charlie Santoriello, part of the Horses & Warriors program, unload hay at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Veterans Mike Vernon (left) and Charlie Santoriello, part of the Horses & Warriors program, unload hay at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Ret. Army Sgt. Michael Vernon has come to love his Friday routine of riding horses with fellow veterans. He’s part of the therapeutic equestrian program Horses & Warriors at the Calvin Center in Hampton.

The horses work their magic on Vernon, who lives with PTSD and traumatic brain injury from a vehicle rollover accident during his third deployment in Iraq. The accident took an arm and a year of recovery and forced him into early retirement. But for two hours on a Friday, this wounded warrior has no worries at all.

“In my opinion, it’s better than going to see a therapist,” said Vernon, 42, who was also a U.S. Marine Corporal, and now lives with his wife in Stockbridge. “You’re talking to people who’ve been through similar experiences that you’ve been through. We help each other out that way.”

Disabled veteran Mike Vernon, who is part of the Horses & Warriors program, helps out in the tack room at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Disabled veteran Mike Vernon, who is part of the Horses & Warriors program, helps out in the tack room at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Horses & Warriors is a free program where older veterans help wounded vets groom and ride horses. Certified therapeutic riding instructors run the program, and the veteran volunteers are there to offer support. Vernon started as a rider in 2013, but he became a helper after a year and a half.

“Just seeing Michael advance and get better and be able to handle things is inspirational,” said Air Force veteran Arnie Geiger, 80, of Fayette County. Geiger was commander of American Legion Post 50 in 2010 when Horses & Warriors director Sara Reams stopped by and asked for their assistance as she started the program.

Veterans Ron Reams (left) and Donald Cyprain replace fences as part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Veterans Ron Reams (left) and Donald Cyprain replace fences as part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

These veteran volunteers are the backbone of Horses & Warriors, Reams said. Most had no horse experience but were willing to learn, and they love being at the Calvin Center, a faith-based retreat and conference center on 584 wooded acres with trails and open fields.

“It’s rural and peaceful,” Reams said. “A lot of the volunteers are Vietnam veterans, and they are struggling with PTSD right now. It’s something that was pushed to the back while they were working. But, they are now retired, and this PTSD is coming forward. So they appreciate being able to be out in the quiet. And they love to be useful.”

If something needs attention, these vets do the work, whether repairing a loose board, fixing the tractor, or pouring a concrete slab, so riders don’t have to slog through mud.

Ret. Army Lt. Col. John Schultz, 69, of Peachtree City, will arrive early on Fridays to clean the barn before the other riders arrive.

“If I see something that needs doing, I just go do it,” said Schultz, who has been with the program for about four years. “Anything I can do to help other vets, I love to do.”

Horses Poco (left) and Brownie eat hay provided by veterans as part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Horses Poco (left) and Brownie eat hay provided by veterans as part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

Geiger said everybody pitches in to help because they love the program and enjoy being together. He recently spent two days repairing a kitchen water heater so the Calvin Center could open for a scheduled event.

The veterans really stepped up their efforts after pandemic layoffs left the Calvin Center short on cash and with only one maintenance person, Reams said.

Vernon learned how to drive the tractor, and, with one arm, he cuts the grass on Wednesdays. Former Air Force pilot Hoyt Davis, 89, of Moreland, found out the herd of 15 horses would be short of food for the winter so he volunteered to find enough hay and raised money to purchase 40 large round bales at $75 each.

“I approached the other veterans with this idea, and all of them wanted to help buy the hay. They all started chipping in,” said Davis, a former Eastern Airlines pilot who has been a Horses & Warriors volunteer for six years.

Davis brought three large bales to the barn several times a week with donations still being collected, driving from Newnan to Hampton, Reams said. Another veteran let his Marine Corps League know of the need, and their $1,000 check completed the purchase of all 40 bales. There was enough money left over to purchase two new hay rings for feeding the horses.

The desire of veterans to help the Calvin Center is striking, Reams said.

“We see daily how they continue to serve. Even though they may no longer wear their uniforms, they still have the hearts to serve their country,” Reams said.

Arnie Geiger (from left), Hoyt Davis Charlie Santoriello and Mike Vernon, who are part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.
Arnie Geiger (from left), Hoyt Davis Charlie Santoriello and Mike Vernon, who are part of the Horses & Warriors program at the Calvin Center Equestrian area in Hampton, GA. Because of COVID, all of the equestrian programs have suffered financially and there are a lot of needs at the Calvin Center. The veteran volunteers have stepped up, providing free maintenance, mowing the lawn, buying hay for the horses, etc. PHIL SKINNER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION.

Credit: Phil Skinner

Credit: Phil Skinner

WHAT INSPIRES ABOUT HORSES & WARRIORS

Hoyt Davis: “I look forward to Fridays, seeing the other guys and helping the riders. We get as much out of it as they do, just being around to help them. It’s amazing what it does for some of those guys.”

Arnie Geiger: “Sara really worked very diligently to get this started and to maintain it. She’s not a vet, but she knows how to relate to vets.”

Michael Vernon: “The Horses & Warriors is the best program you can be part of. It’s a program for veterans who have been through some things, PTSD or physical or mental issues from the war. We’re allowed to go there for two hours, and we’re with other veterans and ride horses. We’re not having to worry about anything else.”

HOW TO HELP

The pandemic has limited the center’s year-round therapeutic riding programs, but the horses still need care. Tax-deductible donations can be made at calvincenter.org/getting-involved/

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