Akron Beacon Journal
For an entire year, Michael Kuhn visited the horses. Always alone, on Sundays.
Kuhn, an 82nd Airborne Iraq veteran, started out slowly, by feeding the horses, by being close to them.
“I would come up here and bring 30 pounds of apples every Sunday, cut them up and walk around and feed all the horses,” said Kuhn, 30, who now acknowledges he suffered from the after-effects of war — post-traumatic stress disorder — for years after he finished his enlistment in 2005.
Then, something happened.
“I finally realized that I feel happy,” he said. “Horses are always cool, calm and collected. They need our help as much as we need theirs.”
It was more than a year ago that Kuhn’s mother, Susan O’Connor — a mother of four children who all have served in the military with a combined six overseas deployments — began encouraging him to visit Solid Rock Therapeutic Riding Center in Lake Township.
The nonprofit center, open for only the past three years, offers free riding services to veterans and their families.
Kuhn and several Gold Star family members — relatives of those who have died overseas — are part of a military fraternity that works with horses at Solid Rock as part of their recovery from war or the loss of a loved one.
“We believe our veterans and their families have already paid the ultimate price,” said Nicki VonGunten, a founder of Solid Rock and the center’s executive director. “We have a policy: If a soldier is in crisis, I don’t care if it is 3 o’clock in the morning,” they can use the facility for as long as they need “if that’s what it takes to save a life.”
Kathy and Frank Patron, parents of Marine Sgt. Daniel J. Patron, 26, who was killed in Afghanistan on Aug. 6, 2011, began spending time at the center in August, around the second anniversary of their son’s death.
Kathy Patron, 55, a speech teacher at Perry High School, spends time at the farm every week. She grooms a rescued horse named after her son, Danny Boy.
Since the death of her son, she said, she believes that when a door opens, she and her family must see what is on the other side.
“I would take Danny back in a heartbeat,” Patron said. But when she heard from O’Connor about healing through horses, she knew she had to go to Solid Rock.
“We have to cross through it for him,” she said.
Thea Glover Dryden, 51, of Plain Township, also has become a regular after learning about Solid Rock through O’Connor. Her daughter, Marine Lance Cpl. Stacy Ann “Annie” Dryden, died of noncombat injuries in Iraq on Oct. 19, 2008. She was 22.
“I feel so comfortable up there,” Dryden said. “I feel when I am up there, I am still sharing my daughter’s life.”
She said spending time with the horses resulted in her meeting Kuhn. The two have become good friends.
Dryden works with a horse named Annie’s Hope, one of three rescued horses bought by Solid Rock through a donation by the Private Heath Warner Memorial Fund. The family of Marine Pvt. Heath Warner, 19, of Canton, established the fund after his death in Iraq on Nov. 22, 2006.
Other rescued horses at Solid Rock named after fallen men or women are: Jay, named after Navy Pilot 1st Lt. Jason Manse, 30, a Canton Central Catholic graduate who flew missions in Iraq at the beginning of the war and was killed in a flight training accident in Georgia in January 2006 with three others; Heath Bar, named for Pvt. Heath Warner; and Courage, named for all veterans and families.
Kuhn, a 2002 Perry High graduate, enlisted three months after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He made 37 jumps as an Army paratrooper.
He took part in the initial invasion of Iraq and was in that country for a year until February 2004.
Kuhn said he has never sought help for PTSD through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but now that he has spent time with the horses, he realizes he has been suffering from the aftermath of war.
“It was never something I actually believed in,” he said.
Ironically, the animals that now calm Kuhn had always frightened him. Finally, in August, after a year of grooming and feeding the horses, he rode one for the first time.
“As soon as I jumped on him, I started sweating,” Kuhn said.
O’Connor knew that her son was suffering silently from PTSD. She took classes at the Red Cross and the VA to better understand his condition.
She worried he might even try to take his own life.
“It has been a very emotional, turbulent situation because while my son left [the Middle East], he didn’t come back home,” she said. “He is fighting a very hard battle internally.”
When her son was in his darkest hours, she would say he was “down under.”
Solid Rock, she said, “is healing him. This is bringing him back.”