How an equine therapist is helping servicemembers heal

8.14 equine therapyMelissa Hopson, widow of a helicopter pilot killed in action during Operation Desert Storm, wants other widows to know that dark places are easy to find – but there is always light. There is always hope. The certified equine therapist with Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) is helping others cope with tragedy and begin to heal. Hopson, of Canton, Ga., has been an American Legion Auxiliary member since September 2016.

Why did you decide to join PATH and become a riding instructor?

I was married to John Kendall Morgan who was killed the last day of Desert Storm. His helicopter was shot down. We never had children. I later ended up marrying a man for whom I was a nanny to his three children. Being a stepparent, I had a lot of emotions, so I started volunteering with a program in my neighborhood. They wanted the equine skills I had studied in school. I realized the therapy wasn’t just for students because I benefited so much from going and volunteering.

How can equine therapy benefit veterans and servicemembers?

I can hear a helicopter and visualize the tragedy. There’s something magical — and I don’t mean that in a new age way — when you’re with a horse. There’s a bond. A helicopter could fly over, but the horse helps you to stay grounded. That’s why I wanted to get involved with Gold Star families. For that time they’re on the horse, they’re not thinking about who’s not at home — whether it’s a mom, dad, brother, sister. It transforms you; you’re in a different world when you’re with that horse.

One veteran came and stayed at my house. She was with the National Guard. She said just grooming the horse was so helpful to her. That’s a way you can bond with someone. You might not even have something in common with the person whom you’re grooming the horse with. We watched videos at our PATH training of a man who had a special saddle made because he lost both of his legs. They couldn’t get him to wear a helmet, but he could ride that horse, even with no legs. And it’s just amazing what people can do. And that stuck out to me because he was a veteran.

Do you have advice for widows and widowers of servicemembers?

Truly believe in hope. When people say someone died doing what they wanted to do, believe in the hope and that the sacrifice they made was truly something in their honor that they chose to do for the rest of us. And believe that the sacrifice they made was so worth it. If we don’t live our lives, that sacrifice is in vain.

It’s easy to get in a dark place. My dad was a fighter in the Air Force. He died in his 50s. The VA said Agent Orange was a contributing factor. In fact, when my first husband wanted to join the Army, his dad said, “Why do you want to fly helicopters? You can’t eject.”

That was my worst nightmare: when they said they would have to ID him by his remains.

How can American Legion Auxiliary members help servicemembers?

 I’m all about doing things in a philanthropic way, but there should be more areas in which grieving people, like the widow I once was, could go. I love to do random acts of kindness – you know, just picking up a veteran’s tab and thanking them for their service – but also thanking them for coming home.

Why did you join the American Legion Auxiliary?

I felt like something as close-knit as the Auxiliary was a way to make a difference, but in a behind-the-scenes way. There are local people right here who make a difference.

How can ALA members help or get involved with PATH?

 Create awareness. There are centers for PATH all around the world. I went to school with two people from Israel. Individuals can volunteer or just create awareness, even by doing pony rides at the carnival with the Auxiliary.

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