This story may contain descriptions that are disturbing to some readers.
For many, the world can be a place of fear, violence and the fight for survival. For most of us living in a developed country like the United States, these struggles are distant and unknown. But a group of people live among us who struggle daily with despair, guilt, suspicion, depression, anger, and other powerful symptoms that make living in our ordered society difficult and, sometimes, crippling.
These special people are our military veterans, law enforcement officers, first responders, medical personnel, and others who have experienced or witnessed trauma as part of their livelihood. Many in this group suffer PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and other disorders and combinations as a result of their traumas.
A person develops PTSD after experiencing a trauma—a dangerous, scary, or shocking event. According to the National Institutes of Health, symptoms usually begin early, within three months of the traumatic incident, but sometimes they begin years afterward.
Four types of symptoms define PTSD: re-experience, avoidance, arousal and reactive, and cognition and mood.
Re-experiences can include flashbacks, nightmares, or frightening thoughts. Avoidance symptoms cause the person to avoid places, objects and people associated with the event and/or thoughts and feelings about the event. Arousal and reactive symptoms are displayed by being easily startled, highly alert to danger or threat (hypervigilance), feeling tense or on edge, having difficulty sleeping, and having angry outbursts.
Cognition and mood symptoms include trouble remembering key features of the traumatic event, negative thoughts about oneself or the world, distorted feelings like guilt or blame, and loss of interest in enjoyable activities.
Victims of trauma sometimes suffer from moral injury, which occurs when someone engages in, fails to prevent, or witnesses acts that conflict with their values or beliefs, producing profound guilt and shame, and sometimes a sense of betrayal and anger. Studies increasingly show a link between moral injury and suicide.
According to the National Center for PTSD, the number of U.S. veterans with PTSD varies by service era, with between 11-20% of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom vets suffering in a given year; 12% of Gulf War (Desert Storm) vets suffering in a given year; and it is estimated that about 30% of Vietnam War veterans have had PTSD in their lifetime.
Psychotherapy (talk therapy) and medication are the most common types of treatment for PTSD. But sometimes, these aren’t enough.
VETS (Veteran Equine Therapy Specialists) was founded in January 2019 by Swedesboro resident and veteran Matt Cahill. The nonprofit program treats PTSD, moral injury, military sex trauma (sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced during military service), adjustment disorder, anxiety disorders, and other conditions that may occur as a result, such as depression.
The 46-year-old retired combat veteran holds 26 years of service as a medic in the Army and the Pennsylvania National Guard and suffered traumatic events both as a deployed soldier in wartime and on active duty in the United States.
“I did not know I had PTSD. I was haunted by patients I worked on in Iraq, especially the children. None of the children we saw were injured by U.S. coalition forces. There was still tribal fighting around where I was in Iraq,” he began.
While Cahill experienced multiple traumatic events, he relayed one in 2007 that really stood out for him.
“The biggest haunter was a little girl who had been transported to us in the back of an Iraqi Police pick-up. She was under many other adult bodies many of whom were dead. I just can’t get the visions of finding her out of my head, or how nervous I was not knowing how much morphine to give her if I had to. I remember being able to get an IV in her and as soon as it was all flowing, I started to shake uncontrollably.”
Cahill, whose sister Jeanne is also a veteran and was deployed to Iraq with him in the same unit, continued.
“Luckily my sister and my SSG [Staff Sergeant] were there to take over her care. There was no time to do anything else except go back outside and keep working.”
While on active duty in 2017, Cahill suffered a traumatic brain injury along with other severe injuries after an auto accident in which the other driver died, which all exacerbated his PTSD.
“I kept replaying the accident and trying to find answers to questions that can never be answered. Nightmares I was already having were nonstop now with the added nightmares of the accident. I experienced panic attacks so bad that while driving the hour to work I would lose all sense of direction and where I was going or why.”
“I still flinch and break into cold sweats when a vehicle comes up to an intersection on my right as this is how I was hit in the accident,” he added.
In 2018 Cahill was helping a friend repair run-in sheds for horses when he realized that being in their company calmed his mind.
He then explained how this experience and a movie made him realize that horses were the key to his healing.
“I was watching How to Train Your Dragon, (a movie about how a young man interacts with a nonverbal dragon and together they are able to learn from each other), and it all fell into place.”
Being unable to find an equine-assisted therapy program that focused on PTSD in South Jersey, Cahill co-founded VETS with his wife Melissa when they merged with therapist Jeanne Mahoney’s program EATS (Equine Assisted Therapy). Mahoney had recently retired from the VA but still wanted to help veterans.
The nonprofit organization was born in October of 2019 and provides therapy at no cost to veterans. Funds are provided by grants, patrons, and other supporters.
Therapy sessions are held at the EAT farm in Mannington and at the Dream Park Equestrian Center in Logan Township.
Cahill explained that while traditional therapy works for some, equine therapy has unique benefits.
“The issue with traditional therapy is that people pretend/lie to themselves and others. Horses do not lie. A kind of math equation kept formulating in my head where there was a number representing the veteran, + X, and the answer is a healthier, peaceful life. But what represents X? How to Train Your Dragon solved for X and translated to horses.”
“Many people ask why dogs cannot fulfill the role of the horse. Dogs are great, but dogs WANT to please their owner. Horses only come to a person if they want to. A normal-sized horse weighs over 1,000 pounds, so there is no forcing them to do anything they don’t want to do,” he added.
“Horses mirror how a person is feeling on the inside and not the mask they may be presenting on the outside. This makes it so that people can’t fool the horse. The horse is also a nonverbal confidant, meaning that there is always the possibility another human may judge, become offended, or be psychologically harmed with what is in the veterans’ heads. Horses make the BEST X factor,” he concluded.
While military vets are a primary focus for Cahill, the VETS program recognizes other special citizens who experience trauma as part of their jobs.
“[My traumas] are the same stories every paramedic, firefighter, police officer, ER personnel, etc., see and deal with,” he added, relaying an auto accident with three fatalities where he aided the victims with his sister Jeanne and another medic.
I hope VETS will be the organization this populace comes and sees after [similar] traumatic incidents, if nothing else just to check in and know we are here.”
One recipient of the VETS program is retired police officer Joe Downs. The 56-year-old was involved in a standoff while serving a search warrant as an officer in Haddon Heights in 1995.
The high-profile case left one officer and a prosecutor’s investigator dead, and another officer injured. The perpetrator, Leslie Nelson, is serving consecutive life sentences for the murders.
Downs, who lived only a block from the shooting, suffered from PTSD as a result of the incident.
“The shooting was in April, and on Memorial Day we were directing traffic for the parade. When they did the gun salute, me and the other guy who were at the shooting were suddenly laying on the ground looking for a place to hide. Once I got past that I thought my PTSD was over, but it wasn’t.”
Downs explained how loud noises continued to bother him.
“If a balloon would pop, I’d break out in a sweat, but it subsided over the years.”
When asked about seeking help after the shooting, Downs explained the dilemma faced by law enforcement officers.
“After the shooting we all had to see a counselor and that was great, but we all wanted to go back to work and to supporting our families and paying our bills.”
“If a police officer seeks [additional] help, they are afraid they could lose their job. The bosses will wonder if they can affectively do the job, if they can feel confident leaving a weapon in their hands.”
Although some symptoms subsided over the years, Downs continued to be affected by the incident and by his PTSD.
“I didn’t trust people, didn’t gain any new friendships because I didn’t trust anyone. You become very cold to things.”
“I talked to my family and realized I needed help, so I reached out to Matt,” he added.
Through VETS, Downs received talk therapy, equestrian therapy and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which he said helped him the most.
“I will always be in therapy. Physically going is done, but they have given me the tools, and I know which tool to reach into the box to grab.”
While Cahill has known many PTSD sufferers who resorted to suicide, it hit home in March of 2020 when his cousin Wes, an Army veteran who had served in Afghanistan, died as a result of suicide. Matt then lost a close veteran friend to suicide in August of the same year.
While families of soldiers killed in action receive the designation of Gold Star Families and the financial benefits, honor and respect that go along with it, the families of veterans who die of suicide do not often get the recognition, type of counseling, and other services they need.
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs National Suicide Prevention 2021Annual Report, the number of suicides among U.S. veterans was 6,261 in 2019.
Cahill got to work and formed the nonprofit Green Star Families of America—an organization dedicated to survivors of veterans lost to suicide—which included working with Congressman Jeff Van Drew to draft a bill that would create a national Green Star Family designation.
As it stands, the cost of the program is being determined by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), and Cahill provided an update on its hopeful future.
“During the next few months is when the veteran organizations such as the VFW are allowed to speak directly to federal representatives. I believe that by the end of April 2022 there will be substantial advancement of the bill, and hopefully passing by the end of the year,” he conveyed.
Twenty-two-year-old college student Izabel Trina currently interns with Green Star Families of America.
“I really do believe that the possibility of a Green Star Banner will connect families who have lost fellow veterans to suicide, to let others know that they aren’t alone with their grief.”
Bernadette Blackstock first met Cahill in 2019 when he came to speak to a group of veterans at Camp Salute, an affordable housing complex in Clayton that gives preference to veterans.
The 71-year old is President and CEO of People for People, a nonprofit foundation that helps individuals and families that fall on hard times through grants and advocacy assistance, while also offering veteran support.
“During Matt’s speech, police cars came on to the property. I went to see what was happening and found out that one of the vets living at the property was having a meltdown.
“Matt jumped right up and went to the guy when he found out what was happening. He started talking to him one on one, checked his vitals. I think he was having an anxiety attack,” she relayed.
“Matt was able to talk the man down, he got his doctor’s name, and made arrangement to get him to the Philly VA right away. Matt stayed the entre time and made sure the man remained calm.”
“We were so impressed with what he was able to do in that emergency situation. He became an intern for the foundation and still volunteers. He really cares about the veterans, and not just the veterans but their families; that’s how Green Star Families came about,” she concluded.
Cahill’s dedication and passion for healing veterans and their families has been noted by many.
Fifty-eight-year-old Rich Cassey Jr. is the Senior Vice Present for Green Star Families of America and Commander of VFW Post 7155 in Trappe, PA.
“Matt’s compassion and vision for helping other veterans and their families has become a passion for all of us. He works tirelessly to fulfill his self-appointed obligations to care for others. His dedication and drive have made a difference not only to those he helps, but also to those of us he has recruited to assist with his mission. Many of us served with Matt and knew of his dedication to others, but he has taken it to the next level and is showing no signs of giving up.”
Cahill’s father Ted is also a veteran, having served as an Army ranger during the Vietnam War. When both Jeanne and Matt were deployed to Iraq, he tried to “get back in so he could protect them.”
The 75-year-old resident of West Brandywine Township, PA is extremely proud of both his children and the service they have provided to their country. He gave an example of how Matt continues to serve.
“He may get a phone call from the Delaware State Police at night that they have a vet who should go to the Coatesville Veterans Association, and Matt will go and transport him. The police have his number because they know Matt will try to help them.”
Matt Cahill has been married to his wife Melissa for almost 18 years. The 52-year old registered nurse echoed her father-in-law’s sentiment.
“If I could choose only one word to describe Matt, it’s passionate! And he is passionate about helping veterans and their families. It is exciting to me to see his drive and desire again. He has a determination that doesn’t quit. I am beyond proud of what he has accomplished in just a few short years and cannot wait to see how much further he can go!”
Cahill has ambitious plans for the future of VETS. But to achieve these goals, he realized that he needed to pursue an MSW degree (Master of Social Work).
“While training as an equine specialist with my mentor who is an LPC (Licensed Professional Counselor), I told her of my full vision for VETS (residential program for the homeless, treatment for substance abuse, and job retraining populations) all based around equine therapy. She looked at me and said you need your MSW in order to do all that.”
With his usual manner of not letting anything stand in the way of achieving his goals, Cahill is now enrolled in the MSW program at Widener University, which also offers a certificate in Trauma. His funding is provided through the VA.
Community members are urged to help VETS and Green Star Families of America. Steady donations are much needed for VETS, as the waiting list grows daily. Both organizations are in desperate need of volunteers to serve a variety of roles and to advocate for veterans and their families.
And most importantly, said Cahill, please spread the word.
“Too many veterans have no idea what organizations are around, sometimes right in their own back yard.”
For those with past trauma considering suicide, Cahill has a message.
“To date I have lost one cousin, two very close friends, and more than 10 acquaintance/coworkers, all veterans, to suicide.”
“Call me, call someone, and don’t do it. Too often people say this and don’t mean it. I mean it, because I’d rather get a call from a veteran at three in the morning than EVER have to go to another suicide funeral, to watch a family mourn because of failures and flaws in the system.”
“I want to let them know there are different treatments out there, there is a whole support system that is not part of a large bureaucratic political system that doesn’t care. Sure, they have hotlines, they have all sorts of programs. But these only operate during business hours. Demons don’t come to play during these hours, they come at 0200.”
“This is also a call to action to all veterans out there. Stand up, get involved, reach out to your local veteran’s groups and discover small veteran nonprofits that you can help and/or be helped by. The only way we veterans have gotten through everything has been by banding together and watching out for each other. If you’re not involved, then why not? Ask yourself this question: If not you, then who?”
By Colleen Woods-Esposito