Shenandoah County Fair: Veterans honored

Veterans gathered at fair hear about program that uses horse to heal those with PTSD

By Ryan Cornell

WOODSTOCK — Tony Pestilli hasn’t forgotten the promise he made 46 years ago.

A U.S. Army veteran from Mount Jackson, Pestilli was fighting in the Vietnam War when he made a covenant with God.

“I told him, if I’m going to die, I want to die right now,” he recalled. “I don’t want to go through 13 months of hell and then die on the last day. And so I promised that when I got out of Vietnam, I would work for him.”

Pestilli survived the war and stuck to his promise. He has spent the past four decades working for the church, including the last 17 years as a pastor at Another Chance Church, helping serve the homeless and drug-addicted of Winchester.

Although he returned home physically unscathed, he continues to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“All this stuff is going on in your mind — the stuff you did, the people you killed, the mutilation that went on — all of that is in your mind constantly,” he said. “But these are things you have to put in front of you.”

An equine-assisted therapy program called Horses Healing Heroes, offered through the Breaking Free nonprofit organization, has helped relieve his mental scars.

By working closely with one of their horses on trust-building exercises, Pestilli said it’s helped him feel better about himself and what he did in Vietnam.

“They know everything you feel,” he said. “When you go out on the field with these horses, they know who you are, they know what you’re going through, they know what type of mood you’re in.”

Another veteran who has been healed through the program is Brooke Hardin.

Hardin, a veteran from Harrisonburg deployed to Iraq in 2005, found herself struggling when she returned from the war.

“I came home not knowing where I fit in with civilians anymore, not knowing where my feelings were coming from anymore,” she said.

But after working with the horses for nearly three years now, she said it’s helped her learn more about herself.

“You’re welcomed with open arms and you’re not judged and it’s somewhere you feel at home, it’s somewhere you fit in,” she said.

Breaking Free started in 2009 and is based in Timberville. As a nonprofit, it operates entirely on donations. It’s certified by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

Jenny Foltz, an equine specialist at Breaking Free, said the agency also helps those with depression, anxiety, substance abuse and physical abuse. She said the program currently serves 17 veterans.

She said participants start their first 12 weeks working with their horses on the ground, and can choose to ride their horses after that. A licensed mental health specialist also works with the clients.

Foltz, Hardin and Pestilli were among a throng of veterans at the Shenandoah County Fair on Thursday for its veterans tribute event. The ceremony included music from the Central High School band, cadets from Massanutten Military Academy and a patriotic speech delivered by the winner of an essay contest sponsored by the Veterans of Foreign Wars. Those in attendance included veterans spanning World War II to the present and representatives from groups including AMVETS, American Legion and Disabled American Veterans.

For more information on the equine-assisted therapy program, visit http://www.breakingfreesaddledoctor.com or contact 540-896-8505.

Contact staff writer Ryan Cornell at 540-465-5137 ext. 164, or rcornell@nvdaily.com