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Equine therapy program supports veterans during COVID-19 isolation

For veterans struggling with isolation issues before the pandemic, Little Blessings is making sure they continue to have equine therapy sessions and support.

TEMPERANCE, Mich. — An equine therapy program in Temperance has gotten through COVID-19 and now re-opened to help local veterans. 

Little Blessings Veteran and Community Outreach is about to have its first veteran complete their program.

For Bryan Gawecki's family, the program has been a marriage-saver. Gawecki has spent over a decade dealing with the mental after-effects from his time in the Marine Corps.

"I served a lot of time in Africa and Albania and Bosnia. I was in a special operations capable unit where we concentrated on rescuing downed pilots and evacuation of refugees," Bryan Gawecki explained.

Since coming back, he's battled homelessness and tried outpatient therapy, as well as counseling through Veterans Benefits. He joined Little Blessings the day he came out of an inpatient treatment center.

"By coming out and being around these horses and not being raised around horses, it's hard to be angry around something that's so big and powerful," Gawecki said.

Before the program, he was never exposed to horses. Now they're his partner in therapy, mirroring his emotions as they work together.

His wife Laura likes how the whole family can get involved, as she says it's not just the veteran who needs healing.

"I can come here and have my own system without him and feel like I have a voice, where before I don't feel like I had a voice," Laura Gawecki said.

Founder Jamie Paxton served for 25 years in the Air Force. Paxton says she learns more with the program every day alongside her brothers and sisters who served.

"It's amazing what I've learned from the spouse's perspective, because I was a veteran and I didn't understand the spouse's perspective. And, getting insight into that is remarkable," Paxton said.

Joel McConnell is the first Veteran to complete the program, and looking back he cans see the changes.

It took him a year to build up the courage to join the program. He encourages other veterans to do the same.

"Gradually it felt more and more comfortable and I call this, this is my home now, this is my family," McConnell said.

Even after a veteran has completed their program, they're still allowed to drop by the Duke farm, because they're considered family.