Heroes and Horses

“There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse” 
                                                                                         - Winston Churchill
Brian Chavez was a stellar athlete at tiny Shoshoni High School in west-central Wyoming. His speed and tenacity, combined with his upbringing in the outdoors of rural Wyoming, made him a perfect Marine. A career that included missions in Desert Storm while on the USS Iwo Jima and seven tours in Iraq.

He entered the Corps on September 27, 1988, a few months after high school graduation, the first step in a 23-year career that saw his rise from private to Chief Warrant Officer 3. From boot camp he went to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina to begin his career as a Marine engineer, with his initial duty as a heavy equipment operator. In 1991 he set out for Iraq on the antiquated Iwo Jima.“It was old and broken down,” Chavez said. “In the middle of the Mediterranean, we were dead in the water. They towed us to Bahrain for repairs.”

Their trip to fight in Desert Storm was as a decoy, a part of an amphibious assault group that tricked Sadam Hussein into deploying his forces away from the actual attack. “Over six months, we were the only ship that ported,” Chavez said. Steadily rising in rank, eventually to Gunnery Sergeant, Chavez worked on a lot of domestic projects, some in foreign countries and eventually in combat conditions back in Iraq.

“We did a lot of nation-building in the 80s and 90s. We built schools, runways, roads, campgrounds, and boat ramps,” Chavez said. “We built runways high in the mountains of Honduras on one mission.” Perhaps the most ambitious assignment Chavez completed as a warrant officer commanding an engineering platoon was the construction of the longest pontoon bridge ever built across the Tigris River in Iraq.  In all, he served on 28 combat bridging missions.

One assignment led to his future diagnosis with PTSD. Recovering bodies, some of people you knew was a traumatic process. “That was the worst part of the whole job. All you can smell is burning human flesh for days. There was nothing you could do about it,” Chavez said. The experience led to nightmares. “It is one of those things you accept, people are going to die,” Chavez said. “The casualties of war.”

One of his final missions was a fascinating hitch with CBIRF (Chemical Biological Incident Response Force) a special group designed to deal with nuclear, biological, and chemical warfare. “We had full respirators on with tape covering the face shield so we were blind. They put us into a building full of hallways, corners, dead ends and we had to crawl through it like a maze,” Chavez said. “All you could do was feel your way into some tight spots to find the open passage.” It was his final assignment as a Marine.

“For my twilight tour, it was the best place I could go,” he said. “I was getting old. I wasn’t as fast, not as strong, and was tired of getting shot at. My kids were in high school and needed a dad around.”

He eventually bought a small farm just a few miles from where he grew up. He married his high school sweetheart Tania and they began a life together in rural Fremont County. He discovered an organization called Heroes and Horses, founded by retired Navy Seal Micah Fink. It is a non-profit organization for veterans from all branches of service. The nightmares were still there.

“There weren’t any programs for vets with PTSD that were beneficial,” Chavez said. “You do a 40 day cleanse and have required reading that you discuss with the group.” “The Obstacle is the Way” by Ryan Holiday is one book. The other is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl, an Auschwitz survivor.

Heroes and Horses places a man with a horse that matches his disposition.The 40-day program features two pack trips to rural Montana or Wyoming.“The first week they teach basic horsemanship, basic packing for a seven-day trip,” Chavez said. “Then they take eight vets, an instructor, and a helper out on a pack trip. We covered 10 to 12 miles a day.”

They worked on a cattle ranch in Montana rounding up livestock from more than a dozen sections of grazing land. “They taught us basic blacksmithing, how to forge a hoof pick out of a horseshoe, basic equine medicine, and wilderness first aid,” Chavez said. “When you’re packing anything and everything that can go wrong, does go wrong.”

“You can’t lie to a horse. They’re all mustangs,” Chavez said. One of the biggest symptoms of PTSD is the inability to deal with stress. “A horse and mule react to your actions. You form an emotional bond with your horse,” Chavez said. “It teaches you to deal with frustration.”

The mantra, “Our veterans don’t need more help, they need better help” is the mission of Heroes and Horses. Heroes and Horses has been a godsend to veterans suffering from PTSD. One of their core values describes the trek Chavez has made, “We’ve done a great job of turning civilians into soldiers, but fundamentally failed at helping soldiers transition back into civilians.” Between 2008 and 2017, 60,000 veterans committed suicide.