Veteran Rides Full Circle on a Horse Named Marco

Special to HuntingtonNews.Net
Jason Bunn had no idea that one day a horse named Marco would change his life.
Jason Bunn had no idea that one day a horse named Marco would change his life.
by Debbie Brammer Public Affairs Officer

Jason Bunn had no idea that one day a horse named Marco would change his life. In fact the 40 year-old former Army Reservist and Navy Corpsman had never even been around horses. Little did he know that horseback riding therapy would bring his life full circle.

Jason had been in a perpetually deep, dark valley for such a long, long time. After hitting rock bottom and with his mental health condition worsening, Jason was admitted to the Clarksburg VA Medical Center (VAMC).

“I didn’t realize at the time how sick I was mentally,” he said. “I was extremely lonely and isolated. But the support that I needed for my condition wasn’t there at the time.”

After being released from the Clarksburg facility, Jason had a dream to start over and become a homeowner. Unfortunately, the stigma of his mental condition ended that dream. Jason became a victim of arson, and among the charred ruins of his home was a message in graffiti about his condition. He says that the mass hysteria in his community about his condition came not only from people who didn’t know him, but from his friends as well.

“That was a very painful time for me,” Jason said. “My friends rejected me, and my life was taken away from me piece by piece. I was homeless, and I had to start all over again. It was the lowest point in my life. I truly wished to die because everything that mattered to me had been taken away.”

Jason believes that people with mental health conditions are no different than other people. “We deal with life, outside factors, but for us it’s blown out of proportion, and it creates stigma and perpetuates as an impression that isn’t true,” he said.

Jason was fortunate that he had the VA to fall back on for his mental health treatment. In 2010, while undergoing treatment at the Huntington VA Medical Center, he was referred to the new Psychosocial Rehabilitation and Recovery Center (PRRC), a day treatment program for Veterans with severe mental illness. “When I reflect back, I realize how angry I was back then. But I was ready to seek help. I was crying out for help.”

“The employees at the PRRC were wonderful,” he said. “There I got more hands-on treatment. I’ve learned how to cope and manage my condition, and I’ve developed an ability to let go of the past and to stay focused on the formula for my treatment. It’s not easy. I’ve realized that my condition is a chemical imbalance, but so is diabetes. Taking the right medications is significant.”

In December 2012, after having found success with the right medication and treatment plan, Jason was referred to the Huntington VAMC’s horseback riding therapy program at the Ohio University (OU) Horse Park in Franklin Furnace, Ohio. There he found a renewed sense of meaning in his life. He quickly expanded his therapy sessions to include a community program that focuses on horsemanship with the option to compete in shows. On May 10, 2014, Jason competed in his first show at the OU Horse Park, riding Marco, a stately eight year-old horse that was purchased for the VA program through donations from a local Vietnam Veteran. Jason and Marco won their first blue ribbon that day.

“I love all the horses, but when I first saw him I was taken back, and I fell in love with him,” said Jason. “Marco is black with white socks and he’s beautiful. I’ve learned from him, and he’s learned from me. I’ve also learned that horses are intuitive, and they pick up on how you feel.”

Jason describes himself as a work in progress. “I’m very happy where I’m at now with Marco. There’s another show in August, and I’ll be competing in that with Marco. We’re doing just the basic command of riding skills, the introductory level and building on that. I’m a perfectionist and critical of myself, but I’ve learned to relax. That blue ribbon is the first time I’ve won something since I was 14. As far as my mental health goes, I’m a text book case from about that age. It’s like my life stopped back then. I’ve come full circle from back then to now.”

“The program has given me my life back,” said Jason. “A couple of years ago, I couldn’t have imagined doing this, and now I can’t image life without it. What I do now does make a difference, and I see how psychiatric patients can lead fulfilling lives. I’ m not bitter anymore. I have forgiven people for what happened, and I’m free now from that burden. New opportunities have opened up for me. I’ve been able to move on.”

Jason not only rides and competes at the horse park, he also volunteers every Thursday helping to groom and exercise the horses, as well as assisting other riders. The park staff has come to depend on him. But for Jason, it’s often about healing. “A few weeks ago, a little autistic boy hugged me after his ride that day. He felt safe with me, and that made my day. For so long I felt emotional numbness. It’s been a long recovery. With any condition, be it mental or physical healing, the mind is equal to healing physically because it is mind over matter. It requires mental strength and toughness to overcome the limits and have good recovery. If you look at my diagnosis and treatment record, it’s a miracle that I’m not institutionalized or perhaps even dead. But I’m here and beating the odds.”

Jason’s father was a decorated Vietnam Veteran and a successful professional. He instilled in his son a strong sense of duty. “What I have been given here at the horse park is a restored sense of duty for helping others,” said Jason. “I feel strongly compelled to be here, and this is always going to be part of my life. It’s not about just surviving. For me, it’s about living life.”

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