Army veteran Jeremy Harrell never thought he’d have a career with horses. Then again, he never thought he’d run a non-profit organization, either.
During Harrell’s eight years with the Army, he deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004. After he got out, he went into the corporate world.
“I had some challenges,” he admitted. “I realized I had some issues of my own that I needed to work through. I had PTSD and some physical injuries I needed to deal with. For close to seven years, I was trying to figure out what my new normal was like. My relationships were failing … my relationships with my kids were in danger. I felt like a completely different person than who I was before I deployed.”
A Kentucky native, Harrell knew he needed help but wasn’t sure where to turn or what to do.
“I’d tried so many different types of therapy, and nothing had helped,” he shared.
Someone suggested he do equine therapy. Exasperated and willing to try just about anything, Harrell agreed to attend a weekend in Kansas with a non-profit, War Horses for Veterans.
Although his wife had an equestrian background, Harrell did not, and his skepticism showed.
“Some people think if you live in Kentucky, you have five horses in the backyard,” Harrell said. “I had never touched a horse before. I’d been to Churchill Downs to the Kentucky Derby. I got off the plane, checked into the hotel and went to the farm. I remember pulling into the farm and just really being at peace. There wasn’t anything out there – which was good. I started learning how to groom horses. They handed me the brush and said, ‘Here you go.’ It was incredibly therapeutic. I wasn’t even thinking about the things I thought about on a daily basis. I was just present, in the moment. There’s a healthy fear – you’re touching a 1000 pound animal, so you’re just focused on it.”
That weekend changed Harrell’s life.
“It was the respite I’d been looking for, for years,” Harrell said.
Some time later, the director of the program, Patrick Benson, called Harrell and asked him if he’d share his experience with talk show host Megyn Kelly. Although he didn’t know who Kelly was initially, Harrell reluctantly agreed.
“I would do anything for veterans,” he explained.
He flew back out for the interview. When it aired, he was surprised to hear Kelly announce his plans to do a similar program in his home state of Kentucky.
“I called Patrick and asked him if he told her that – since I definitely had not – and he said no,” Harrell said. But it was just the push he needed.
“I had been praying for something,” Harrell explained. “I wanted to turn my mess into a message.”
Not long before Kelly’s unintentional gaffe, Harrell found himself at a different equine retreat in upstate New York. Each day, he passed a tiny chapel.
“Three or four days, I walked by it,” Harrell said. “I remember thinking, ‘It’s so small. What a funny little church.’”
On his final day there, he felt called inside.
“I went in, and I prayed,” Harrell shared. “I started as I always did: ‘Hey God, help me.’ But then, it felt like a supernatural occurrence; I had a heart change – and instead of, ‘Help me,’ it became, ‘Use me.’ Use me to lay my life down and to submit to the will you have for me. All of these trials and tribulations have to mean something. They have to mean something. Use me to help others who have these same struggles.”
And so, Veteran’s Club Inc was born. It started as a social club – a place for veterans to gather and form community. It quickly grew into a program for the whole family.
“I couldn’t stand seeing my brothers and sisters die by their own hands,” Harrell shared. “I heard the divorce rate for combat veterans was 80% – I wanted to help that at a foundational level. The folks who are still around say that the only reason they stuck around was because of their families. So what if we could fix the families?”
In addition to social events, Veteran’s Club Inc offers the same service Harrell credits with saving his life: Equine-facilitated mentoring that involves the whole family. “I wanted a safe space for spouses to connect, for couples and military children. The fruit of that is like nothing I’ve ever seen. I’ve seen marriages restored – folks who were married and divorced get married again,” Harrell said. Since its launch, Veteran’s Club Inc has helped more than 6,000 veterans and military family members. Last year alone, they hosted 185 significant events. For Harrell, it’s a family affair. His wife and kids have all helped the organization tremendously and they’ve created a culture of service in their family.
Harrell said, “It used to be, a veteran would say, ‘No one understands.’ And I would say, ‘I know, it sucks right?’ And now I say, ‘I have 6,000 folks that do. Come be a part of it.’”