Mitchell and BLM mustang 1593. Mitchell is an Army veteran who was wheelchair-bound after an RPG explosion in 2012. 1593 wouldn’t allow any contact when it was picked up at the BLM holding pens. Since signing on with BraveHearts, Mitchell has regained the ability to walk and even run. G.R. Schiavino

“I was scared of horses, but it was like, I’m going to die anyway, so….”

This is how Mitchell Hedlund, 27, convinced himself to join BraveHearts, an Illinois-based veteran recovery program that offers equine-assisted activities and therapy. He joined the program in 2015 and then became a member of its Operation Mustang—the first program to have military veterans gentle wild BLM mustangs.

“In the infantry,” Hedlund continues, “you either kill or die. Take away the ‘kill,’ and what’s left?”

If it sounds dark, it was. Hedlund had a planned suicide date when he joined BraveHearts. It would be a day when his mother wasn’t around and his kids would be in someone else’s care. It would be four days after he’d go give the horse thing a try. It was marked on the calendar.

While serving in Afghanistan in 2012, Hedlund survived an RPG blast that, combined with the stress of carrying a pack that weighed between 150 and 300 pounds on a daily basis, put him in a wheelchair.

“I had no fight,” recalls Hedlund, speaking of his belief that he would never be able to get out of his wheelchair.

But when suicide day arrived, Hedlund pushed it back. There was something about the horses that captured his interest, and each time he worked with them, he’d push the date back even further.

“Horses bring me to the present,” he says. “Not the future,” which causes Hedlund’s anxiety, “and not the past,” which is the source of his PTSD.

At the time of this interview, Hedlund appears to be nothing like how he has described himself. He’s enthusiastic, he smiles a lot, and he towers over me as we walk through where the mustangs are stalled. No wheelchair in sight.

“I ran for the first time today,” he tells me and we take a moment to consider the enormity of that milestone.

We are at the 2016 Cheyenne Frontiers Days in Cheyenne, Wyo., where the BLM’s Wild Horse and Burro Program and Operation Mustang teamed up to gentle 22 mustangs and burros over the course of the 10-day rodeo, readying them to be auctioned off at the end of those 10 days.

[Read more: How horses are helping first responders] 

[Read more: How horses and cowboy living are helping veterans]

The rodeo, one of the biggest, is a massive production. Cannon blasts signify the start of the rodeo each day as tens of thousands of fans converge upon the once-booming, Old West railroad town. Across the highway, fighter jets, helicopters, and massive jumbo jets take off and land at the Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, their engines a deafening roar as they scream across the rodeo grounds. In spite of the chaos and commotion, the 11 veteran Operation Mustang participants work their assigned horses in a round pen, in front of an audience, explaining their process and introducing their horses to the crowd over the sound system. In all, it is an arguably harrowing environment for veterans suffering from PTSD.

“I don’t have PTSD around the horses,” Hedlund states, conveying how he is able to cope with the environmental challenges, much less, gentle a wild horse. “I’m normally scared of crowds, but out there, it’s just me and him in the arena.”

Hedlund fully credits the program for his mental and physical successes.

“Operation Mustang and BraveHearts is my church,” he confides. “It gave my kids their father back and it gave my mother her son back.”

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