On Nov. 13, NIEHS honored its employees who have served in the military. The institute’s Veterans Day Celebration was held jointly with a donation drive for the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC), which helps federal workers support charities around the country (see sidebar).
The gathering featured speeches by NIEHS leaders and moving presentations by local veterans working to assist soldiers returning from combat, as well as raffle prizes and snacks. One highlight involved an equine-assisted therapy group that brought small horses for petting.
“Each year, we take this time to honor and thank the veterans who work at NIEHS, both federal and contract employees, for their service to our country,” said NIEHS and Toxicology Program (NTP) Acting Director Rick Woychik, Ph.D., who served in the Navy Reserve early in his career.
“It’s a time to reflect upon their great achievement but also the sacrifices that many servicemen and women have made while working to protect all Americans,” he added.
Veterans in need
John Turner, founder of Veterans Life Center (VLC), a nonprofit organization in North Carolina that seeks to improve the lives of soldiers returning from overseas duty, discussed his inspiration.
He said that after serving in Iraq, he came home to bleak statistics. Each year, thousands of veterans sought assistance from Veterans Affairs medical centers, and each day, roughly 20 veterans died by suicide.
“We founded the organization with one goal: to return veterans to self-reliance,” said Turner.
His colleague, Thomas Gorry, Ph.D., is the center’s executive director. The former Marine general once commanded Camp Lejeune and later became president of Marine Corps University.
“We’re all living the American Dream because of the veterans who came before us,” said Gorry. “Unfortunately, there are some veterans who are not living the American Dream.”
He cited some of the economic, health, and family problems faced by returning soldiers. “Some of them have undiagnosed or untreated psychological issues, [and] many of them turn to drugs and alcohol as a coping mechanism,” Gorry noted.
VLC is building a 100-bed facility that will provide mentorship and other assistance to veterans so that they can better transition to civilian life.
Army veteran-turned-comedian Jacques Belliveau presented next. He works with Stampede of Love, a North Carolina-based nonprofit specializing in therapy involving miniature horses.
Belliveau highlighted a study showing that therapeutic horseback riding resulted in a clinically significant decrease in post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms in a group of 29 veterans. He said that therapy involving horses provides other benefits, such as increased sociability.
According to Belliveau, the Veterans Health Administration provides roughly $640,000 of funding each year for equine-assisted mental health services. After his presentation, attendees spent time with two Stampede of Love horses, Kiwi and Lola.
“For the last two years, I have had the honor and ability to chair a small committee to put together this event for you all,” said NIEHS Program Analyst Mary Jacobson. She presented donated raffle prizes to veterans at the institute.
Lori Edwards, a biologist in the Protein Expression Facility, won a Thanksgiving Day-decorated apron. NTP biologist Jason Stanko, Ph.D., received a special challenge coin featuring all five seals of the armed forces. Benny Encarnacion, of the Financial Management Branch, took home a stainless-steel drink bottle adorned with an American flag.
Refreshments were supplied by senior leadership, and raffle prizes were provided by the planning committee. No government funds were used.
The event concluded with the famous bugle call “Taps,” performed by Staff Sargent David West, of the 440th Army Band, North Carolina National Guard.
Citation: Johnson RA, Albright DL, Marzolf JR, Bibbo JL, Yaglom HD, Crowder SM, Carlisle GK, Willard A, Russell CL, Grindler K, Osterlind S, Wassman M, Harms N. 2018. Effects of therapeutic horseback riding on post-traumatic stress disorder in military veterans. Mil Med Res 5(1):3.
(Jesse Saffron, J.D., is a technical writer-editor in the NIEHS Office of Communications and Public Liaison.)