George Kanaly was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after his first marriage dissolved. He harbored the dark feelings faced by many of his fellow Vietnam War veterans.
After suffering steep losses in combat, he returned home only to be spit on by protesters. “Everybody disrespected us,” says Kanaly, an Army veteran who served in country from 1967 to 1968. “They thought we were all nuts because we were diagnosed with PTSD.”
Kanaly, a 50-year member of The American Legion affiliated with Post 192 in Marengo, Ill., finally took advice from his sister and others to get help about seven years ago. “I had a total meltdown. I had been diagnosed with PTSD for a long time. One of the things that helped me cope with my PTSD was finally getting counseling.”
Agreeing to see a VA therapist proved to be the catalyst he needed. From there, he was directed to Operation Wild Horse, a nearby nonprofit that pairs wild mustangs and burros with veterans and active-duty personnel with PTSD. “It’s like a family,” he says.
His extended family, a network of caring individuals, has helped Kanaly through his low points. Their efforts are representative of The American Legion’s Be the One campaign. The initiative’s goal: eliminate the stigma associated with mental health, empower everyone to take appropriate action to help veterans in crisis and, ultimately, reduce the rate of veteran suicide.
One does not have to be a veteran to “Be the One.” Spouses, non-veteran caregivers, civilians and family members each have the power to “Be the One” when it comes to saving a life.
Taking the lead
Patti Gruber, program director for Operation Wild Horse, is an example for civilians. Through the organization, based in Bull Valley, Ill., veterans like Kanaly bond with the animals, which helps soothe their negative feelings and often lifts them from despair.
The organization was among dozens that participated in the second annual Vets 4 Veterans and Blue Families, hosted in June by American Legion Post 171 in Crystal Lake, Ill.
Post 171 Senior Vice Commander Robert Dorn said the event is designed to connect at-risk veterans with local services, shining a light on solutions to PTSD and veteran suicide.
“The whole idea is to bring together resources that veterans and first responders are not aware of,” he says. “We figured, ‘Why can’t we be the navigator for that veteran?’”
Though more than 100 people attended the event, Dorn doesn’t measure success by attendance. Instead, it’s a goal tied to the effort to “Be the One.”
“It’s hard to not get caught up in the numbers,” he says. “How many vets showed up? Sometimes it’s not what you anticipate. I learned a long time ago, it’s the one. Be the One is really the key to it. If you help that one, then you help his or her whole family. That’s how we measure success.”
Throughout the daylong event, Gruber visited with veterans, their families and others, introducing them to Operation Wild Horse.
“’Why mustangs?’ is always the No. 1 question we get,” she says. “When you’re in the military, everything is fight or flight. You have to decide in a situation what you need to do. Do you stand there and hold your ground, or do you need to leave? And that’s the exact same way the mustangs survive. On a very organic level, they understand each other.”
Like veterans, the burros and mustangs need transition. Once wild animals, they go through a gentling process so they understand how to interact with people. “There’s a direct correlation about both veterans and the animals learning to come back and join civilization at the same time,” she explains.
Gruber was inspired by lessons from her grandfathers, who both served in World War II. One, an American Legion member, served on USS Mauna Loa. “He was my happy grandfather, and I remember watching him march in all the parades. He wore his USS Mauna Loa hat to the day he died. We buried him with it.”
Her paternal grandfather was a Marine who was captured on Wake Island and spent four years as a prisoner of war in Japan. He displayed anger, self-medicated and showed signs of PTSD.
“Growing up with these two different grandfathers who had very different experiences in the military, I wanted to do something to give back,” Gruber says. “It was really important to me to honor both of my grandfathers and my love of mustangs, and put them together. That’s how Operation Wild Horse came to be.”
Gruber’s team embodies the Legion’s vision for the Be the One campaign.
“We measure success by people who have come to us and told us they are only still walking around because we’re there for them,” she says. “We have such a strong family unit that if somebody doesn’t show up, we’re reaching out to them and finding out what’s going on.”
Sometimes a veteran’s spouse or friend will notice a veteran is having a bad day and prompt them to visit Operation Wild Horse.
“About half an hour, 45 minutes, after they’ve been spending time with their horse, we see them just take it down a little bit,” Gruber says. “We see the laughter and the brightness in their eyes come back. We know that when they’re leaving, they’re in a better place.”
Power of Socks
Kanaly’s challenges date back to losing almost his entire unit before leaving Vietnam. “To say he struggled with anger is an understatement,” Gruber says.
He regularly visits Operation Wild Horse, sometimes after a VA therapy session. Just a few months after starting the program, changes were noticeable.
“When George first came to the program, he was more standoffish,” Gruber says. ”He was not able to trust and be part of something. Over the years, he’s not only connected with other veterans who understand his time in service, but they have helped him let down his walls. He has this great barrelling laugh now. The laughter is the biggest change between when he came to us and who he is now.”
Even after years of counseling and mustang therapy, Kanaly spiraled in late 2020. Marine Corps veteran Jimmy Welch, Operation Wild Horse president and co-founder, showed how to “Be the One.”
“I was thinking about getting a gun and mentioned something in a passing comment,” Kanaly says. “Patti’s friend, Jimmy, was on the phone in 20 minutes. We talked for a long time, and he helped me get back over the edge.”
He’s a believer in the therapy. “The mustangs are ... so in tune with how you are. There have been times when I came in with a real bad attitude, and the horses mellow me out.”
Gruber tries to pair visitors with the same horse each time. Kanaly worked well with a mare named Socks. “We just connected. I haven’t been able to ride her for six months because of her injury. But I like to go there and just brush her. I’m hoping she can get to the point where we can walk around again. She can be so gentle.”
Thanks to Post 171’s efforts, Gruber is optimistic that more veterans will experience similar turnarounds. Since the Vets 4 Veterans event, others have reached out to her.
“Any time a veteran has an opportunity to talk with other veterans, it opens a door,” she says. “I’m grateful for the Legion and other organizations that are helping save one veteran at a time.”
So is Kanaly, who has remarried. “I’m a lot more mellow now,” he says. “My wife has mentioned it so many times. It’s the peace and tranquility of going there. It’s given me new ways to address negative stuff.”
Henry Howard is deputy director of media and communications for The American Legion.