About an hour and a half outside the city, locals will find a unique place that offers the promise of a new day in body and soul and a clean break from the skeletons of yesteryear.
Veterans who are still struggling to come to terms with the military service of then and what is their life now.
BraveHearts, in the idyllic countryside of beautiful Harvard, is home to an organization dedicated to stopping veteran deaths by suicide.
Bill Mercurio was drafted in 1966 to serve in the Vietnam War. He was a part of the 20th Engineers Battalion at Pleiku Air Base, a former Air Force base in Vietnam.
“I left Vietnam in May of ’67. Three days later I was on my couch,” Mercurio told WGN News.
Fifty-six years later, Mercurio said his time in Vietnam was relatively brief, but his actions a world away and what he witnessed there stays with him to this day. He said he is one of the lucky ones, however.
Not only did he survive, but he conquered his own personal demons from that time in a foreign land decades ago. After a successful career in business, the now-retired Mercurcio has dedicated his days to helping other veterans who are currently battling their past war experiences — one hoof at a time.
“That horse has become part of their everyday and weekly endeavor,” Mercurio said. “When we have someone who is in that place, they often request more time with that horse, more time coming out to the barn because they feel that is a safe place. For most people, it’s a safe haven.”
Formed in 2002 by a small group of veterans and their families, BraveHearts uses equine therapy to help veterans leave darkness behind and welcome the long-awaited spiritual sunshine of a new day.
Operation Mustang, as it is called, has served thousands of veterans over the years, but there is always someone else in need. The key, volunteers say, is to get veterans to ask for help. Once that hurdle is cleared, the odds of finding better mental health often follow.
At Bravehearts, riding sessions, care and counseling are offered at no charge to raise veteran suicide awareness.
“We could bring awareness to the suicides that was in 2017. That was in New York City, we had a wonderful response,” said Mercurio of the Trail to Zero Ride. “It’s a tragedy because it’s not as publicized as it should be, because if you have 140 vets that’s a massive amount, that’s 600-plus a year that’s two 9-11’s.”
In a few short days, Bill and several others from BraveHearts will blaze a new trail to a hallowed place, the shores of France to mark D-Day and where the tide of WW2 took a turn for the better.
The horses will be provided for them and the objective will be to bring even more attention to the mission at hand — helping America’s veterans alongside some of the most strong, beautiful and noble 4-footed animals to ever exist.