BLACK FOREST — The latest data from the Veteran's Administration from 2020 shows that over six thousand veterans committed suicide, and while that number was actually less than in 2019, it is a shocking number that points to a national health crisis that is gaining more focus and attention.
As the veteran population in the Pikes Peak region continues to grow, it's extremely important that we continue to focus on programs, conventional or otherwise, designed to help those struggling with mental health issues and save lives.
So I had the chance recently to meet Jennifer Wolf, owner and operator of Destinacion's Therapy and Maybell's Mission in Black Forest, whose sole purpose is to provide an outlet through horse therapy for those veterans and their families, who are struggling and are trying to turn their lives around.
Many of veterans are suffering from PTSD, have lost their purpose in life, and have failed to mesh with society or reintegrate with their families.
Horses thrive on a herd mentality and in her own unique way and her lifelong love of horses, Jennifer is using the herd concept of her horses, which number more than two dozen to help humans interact in the same way.
Making them feel a part of something, a connection, leaving isolation and loneliness to better improve their lives and their mental health.
Jennifer told me, "I mean, there's definitely an awareness and there's definitely a push to say mental health is not something to stigmatize or be afraid of. Let's be honest, let's put it out there, let's tell it like it is."
But that's not always easy for so many, veterans or otherwise, so that's where she comes in with her unconventional therapy that combines verbal and physical therapy located on a sprawling tract of land in Black Forest.
For Jennifer, this is personal. She knows from where she speaks. She lost her husband to suicide after he served three tours in Iraq and finally succumbed to mental stress and the PTSD that had overtaken his life after he returned home.
She turned her personal tragedy into motivation and is now helping others find their way. The registered psychotherapist told me that given her life experience with her husband, the therapy incorporates what she loves with the people she loves, providing a platform for growth. It's her life, her passion and she says she wants to be a part of the solution.
The back story to this horse therapy program rests in the circumstances of when her husband was struggling with his mental health. He forgot to maintain the necessary paperwork to ensure that his life insurance would be paid out to the family by the VA in the event of his death.
That failure left Jennifer broke and hopeless but it also served as a catalyst to provide support and a voice to widows and widowers who need help.
She says, "I think what I focus on more is I wonder how many people this has happened to and they haven't had a platform to speak out and say what can we do because it's wrong. It's wrong for these people guys to give their lives, pay into their life insurance and an unchecked box essentially will leave their family without anything."
Horse therapy is not new but is not readily available. The VA provides this type of program, but only in the Denver area she told me. She has been trying to fill that local void for nearly four years, serving over a thousand clients through a minimum eight-week program or longer for those who need it, particularly those suffering from PTSD.
Wolf says the program is designed to get her clients to better understand their lives and the challenges they face, "So a lot of life coaching, a lot of how to cope with traumas, the things we take for granted like being afraid to ride in an automobile, loud noises, heavy crowds, how to cope with those things so they can get back out into society."
She adds the therapy of talking or riding is designed to observe and absorb, learn how to relax on horseback, experience with the horse, overcome obstacles, pushing through different choices and experiences, and the result, she says, is affirming to these people.
"And as we ask them to do things with the horse that may seem impossible or difficult when they tackle it with a thousand-pound animal, it sends them home feeling like maybe I do have capabilities, maybe I do have a purpose," said Jennifer.
Ronnie Knett is one of her clients who I met the day I interviewed Jennifer. She says that Wolf saved her life because of the personal connection, "Jen, I made the connection with her. The connection with horses has always been there because I grew up with them."
Ronnie is an Air Force veteran, diagnosed with trauma-induced bipolar disorder and PTSD after she was raped while serving and just months later lost her husband. A mother of four children who tried conventional verbal therapy with the VA, but found that what Jennifer offers has been her salvation and one of her four sons.
"Well, this program helps me actually feel those emotions versus shutting them out, so accepting that I'm allowed to be angry, I'm allowed to be sad, and I'm allowed to cry," said Ronnie.
Donations are the lifeblood of this program and the money goes further here at this smaller operation but Jennifer says it's a struggle to maintain this ranch and run a non-profit.
She says she reached out to the VA, Home Front Cares, The Gary Sinise Foundation and Wounded Warriors Project but has gotten nowhere.
The competition for donation dollars is real and she says operating in the shadow of those larger non-profits is daunting, "But the little ones stay little when people don't support it and we want to grow and help more veterans to get more resources out there."
I wanted to tell her story so she can continue this important work saving lives and growing her therapy program and you can help.
She does hold periodic fundraisers to help the cause, with one coming up in March.