BOONES MILL, Va. – A local army veteran is hoping his fight against PTSD through equine therapy inspires other veterans and their families to always find ways to never give up on life.
Stephen Kelly is a retired Army Staff Sergeant. He is now a stay-at-home dad, but his past has impacted his life today.
Kasey Kelly, his wife and his full-time caretaker because of the struggles he deals with, has walked this journey with Stephen since they met in 2011.
“Certain circumstances happened in life so at 25 years old, I decided I was going to join the military,” Stephen said. “While we were stationed, the guy she went on a blind date with was in my platoon. We were talking about fishing and we were on our way to Walmart to get some gear and he told me, ‘Oh, by the way, I am meeting a girl for a date.’”
“I didn’t want to go on that blind date but I went and he brought Stephen along and that is how we met,” Kasey said as she laughed.
“Yes, I was like, ‘Ok, you are bringing me on a date and that seemed kind of weird to me. We ended up getting our gear and our licenses and we all went out to lunch at a pizza place. I ended up paying for the entire lunch,” Stephen said laughing with Kasey.
The couple said it felt like they knew each other forever and that their relationship went very quickly.
“We met in March or April of 2011, broke up for about a month and then in mid-July to the end of August, got back together,” Stephen said. “Got married October 22 of that year so six to seven months, we met, fell in love and got married.”
Six months later, Stephen said he was deployed and the day before flying out, he found out Kasey was pregnant with their son Harrison.
“So here I am, flying out to war and she is headed to California to be with her mother,” he said.
In July 2012, things for the family took a turn for the worst.
“It was my Grandpa Kelly’s birthday, July 22, which is a day before mine,” Stephen said. “We were in a duty platoon convoy which is five vehicles. So in our area of operation, we had to drive around picking up people and taking them to where they need to go like picking up units and soldiers. We were told we needed to drive down this narrow street that we shouldn’t have driven down but we did. I was the last vehicle in line and when I stopped I heard a voice telling me to go forward.”
It was a voice that Stephen and Kasey think may have been a sign from above because he said his squad leader ended up yelling at him.
“He said, ‘I didn’t tell you to go! Stop!’ At that point, an explosion went off behind me,” Stephen said. “From what I understand, and from what I was told and can remember, the blast went off on the more left side of the vehicle. When it hit us, it picked us up, turned us 45 degrees and slammed us into a wall.”
Fortunately, Stephen said it was his kit that saved him.
“It was so big that it caused me to be sandwiched to where it caught me and I was never lifted off the seat,” he said. “It saved my heard from hitting the top of the vehicle.”
Stephen had to be airlifted to the hospital but because he only suffered a sore knee and appeared fine on the outside, he was discharged and back on duty shortly afterward.
“Within two weeks of the explosion, I was on another mission and the explosion warning inspector was there after he investigated that blast,” Stephen said. " He asked if the driver of the vehicle still alive and I told him that I was right there. He looked at me and asked, ‘How are you still walking and why are you back here?’ I said, ‘I am fine. There is nothing wrong with me,’ and he said, ‘I find that hard to believe.’ The first two wheels on either side were thrown 150 meters in a field. I don’t know what made me leave that situation as healthy as I was. I just bit down on my tongue when I was hit and my knee was a little hurt. Everything else felt find. I had my limbs and was not paralyzed and that is why I was the first one to be released.”
Stephen was internally suffering from a Traumatic Brain Injury that has caused memory loss to this day. His PTSD also worsened after the explosion as well.
“You get shot at every day,” Stephen said. “There are multiple explosions every day. You’re out on patrol, you get shot at. At the base you get shot at. Go to bring water to your battle buddy and all of a sudden, bullets start flying in.”
When he got back home to Kasey, she said the love of her life was a different man.
“We have been working a really long time to get him the help he needed,” Kasey said. “After being medically retired, the VA has been good at getting us the assistance. Stephen goes to counseling twice a week, and we do equine therapy and we are doing marriage therapy so we are really working on trying to find a new normal.”
She said it is still hard because she never knows who she is about to wake up next to.
“When he came home, I was pregnant so he was about to come home for the birth which was great,” Kasey said. “One example, we had a neighbor who moved in next our rented house and they were throwing a parting and lighting fireworks. Stephen was terrified. Because of the vibrations and fireworks, he was under the bed. There was a couple instances where he fell asleep with his eyes open and I thought he died because of a heart attack. One time we had a wind storm which typically doesn’t happen in Washington, but he thought something was wrestling and scratching the house. He literally ran and tried to grab the baby and run. These are the things he has had to process and live with.”
Another issue they are having to work through is Stephen’s TBI.
“He can’t remember a lot of things,” she said. “We have to make sure he is not cooking in the kitchen because he has set the oven on fire multiple times. We are restoring our home and trying to get as much done as possible because he needs a knee replacement when he is only 37. He doesn’t have any feeling in his fingertips so we don’t know how long he will be able-bodied. We are just going through the motions now of what we can do because he might get to a point where he cant.”
One downside of having to constantly pick up and go in the military, Kasey said they could never get the real help Stephen needed.
“Because of the moving, he would start the process of getting help and then we would have to move again and do it all over and over again,” Kasey said. “Luckily being here now and having him be medically retired, there is finally time for him to process and finally time for our family to start seeing hope for dad being happy again. We are also closer to his dads which are a major help with him.”
Stephen is also on the medication he needs from the VA to help through this process.
“He put me on a mood stabilizer because I have severe anxiety and paranoia, I have severe depression and he said the rollercoaster you are on right now is not good for anybody let alone a man who has a wife and two kids,” Stephen said.
Before discovering Healing Strides of Virginia, Stephen admits he had a short fuse.
“I was much more angry and irritable,” he said.
Fast forward to 2020, Stephen said he hit a dark patch.
“We lost a child through miscarriage,” Kasey said. “It was really hard but we were really lucky to have a good chaplain to help us through that.”
“That exacerbated the TBI and PTSD,” Stephen said. “I was so excited and then she went for her 10-week check and they said it wasn’t a heartbeat or had developed in 10 weeks. It took us from a high to a really low. In October of 2020, things were going on and I was not in the right head space and was going down a downward spiral. She put herself in front of me in harm’s way to make sure I didn’t get to something I could that with and she was able to get me to turn around and go a different direction. I was really lucky a brother-in-arms showed up with the ambulance. He sat on the floor and talked to him until he was ready to get into the ambulance.’”
Fast forward to the start of 2022, the family was introduced to Healing Strides.
“We were driving around with our real estate agent looking for homes and we knew we needed to go somewhere where he would be supported,” Kasey said. “So we thought closer to his dads because we needed someone who understood what was going on with him since his Stepdad is former military. We packed up everything and moved here and stayed in our travel trailer in one of the camps. The agent was incredible and drove us to Boones Mill and there was this sign that said Healing Strides and I said, ‘Look! They have equine therapy.”
She did her research and before she knew it, the organization found a way to help not only Stephen but her mental health as well as her children.
“I can’t say how happy our kids are when they are here,” Kasey said. “They are in heaven. And it is amazing at how well they pair you up with a horse that you need! Like how do they know!”
One example is the organization paired Stephen with a horse who also had PTSD and the two worked through that trauma together.
“I learned that not only is the horse important, but I have to be tuned with the horse and if it is not paying me attention, you got to get its attention and make that connection,” Stephen said. “I remember I was having a bad day I was very anxious and nervous about a lot of things and Ro was feeding off that and he wasn’t doing what I was asking him to do because he knew I didn’t know what I was doing.”
Stephen said Ro taught him so many things before he was switched to Destiny, his newly assigned horse.
“Destiny, I feel, we have a good connection. She is a very sweet and loving horse and does what I ask her to do. She is the one that keeps me level headed. Very pretty and beauty and she lets me know if I need to correct something or not.”
Stephen is not the only one experiencing the benefits of equine therapy.
“When I am thinking clearly and it is just me and Hank in an arena working on our tasks, it is incredible,” Kasey said. “Through therapy with Hank, I am learning to better communicate with Stephen. Working with Hank, I am learning how to address my kids. The lightness from Stephen, I get emotional because you could see the heaviness come off of him. So, I am thankful for something that he can have for just an hour a week.”
Stephen said this process has helped his relationship tremendously.
“It has built our relationship back to where it was,” he said. “To where we are not so stressed out and anxious to where it is taken out on each other, and we shut down and don’t talk. This got us back to being fun and being happy and willing to go out. I am so thankful that this woman has sat by me for the last 11 years and taking care of me and is my full time caretaker because without her I don’t think I would be alive today. If we had gone anywhere else in the us. And didn’t have the support of my dads or anybody here, I don’t know what my life would be. I thank whoever every single day that I met my wife as the third wheel on a date because she has saved my life so many times that I can’t even thank her enough for and I don’t think I could ever thank her enough for it.”
The couple is beyond grateful for the organization and the volunteers and the other clients using their services. They hope their testimony inspires people, especially veterans, to seek resources and to always find ways to live life.
“Surround yourself with good people and positive energy and just look at yourself and say, ‘No matter what happens, I will make it through this.’”