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Two vets, three sodas, and a notebook

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The journey to Rockin J Reawakenings

Rockin J Reawakenings Veterans Center and Ranch in Prewitt, N.M., is named for two people whose first names start with the letter J;  Jess and Jori Butler. Butler was a diesel engine mechanic on the USS Frederick LST 1184.

Jess Butler and his wife Jori, who run a little jewelry shop in Thoreau, met another Navy veteran one day and found out Mark Kasehagen had also served on the USS Frederick, as a corpsman. Turned out they were neighbors.

The two veterans got together and started considering businesses they could partner in that would give back to the community. Butler said, “Community and kids are our priorities.”

To hear Butler tell it, the whole idea of using equine therapy and dogs to help people contending with hypersensitive conditions such as PTSD, ADHD and autism wasn’t too difficult to arrive at. “[In] about three sodas and a notebook, we had our start.  We identified how we could help the people we wanted to help.”

Kasehagen says the idea came from an article he saw in The American Legion Magazine about “Project Warhorse” in Canada.  “That was my first real look at equine therapy that was in a set format for veterans for depression and PTSD.”

The two agree that there is something special and healing about horses.  Butler says horses are hypersensitive and that’s one of the reasons they are so good for healing. “We’ve had guys who come out and rub on the horses and cry.”

Kasehagen says, “There’s a lot to be said for when you’re feeling anxious, depressed. Spending time with a horse is good medicine.”

Asked if he personally suffers from PTSD, Kasehagen described some of the things he’d seen. “My entire career with the navy was spent as a fleet marine force corpsman.  I took care of marines my entire career.  As you can imagine they make lousy travel agents…take you to wild and wondrous places. During those years in service, spending time in Somalia, Rwanda, Burundi, during the bad years. The late ‘80s and ‘90s were not very comfortable in general.  We did non-combatant evacuations from embassies.  Places like Sierra Leone. We evacuated Sierra Leone a couple of times, as I remember.”

He continued, “We did a lot of humanitarian missions, too.  You were taking care of people in some of the worst situations that you can imagine…from natural disasters to out and  out civil wars.  You rendered what aid you could.”

Does he find it depressing, heartbreaking? “All of the above.  Some of that hung on and still does to this day. It never truly goes away. You just learn to live with it, compartmentalize it, and hopefully get on with life.  That’s where equine therapy comes in.

“There’s a sense of calm when you’re with a horse. Not necessarily riding it, but just brushing, rubbing on a horse,” he continued. “There’s a therapeutic thing of being with such an incredible animal…It’s healing...It takes your mind to a different place...It has a very calming effect.  It surprised me in quite a lot of ways.  There’s a lot to be said for spending a couple hours with a horse…letting things fall off of you, so to speak.”

Kasehagen said the first thing for him was talking to his neighbor, Butler about it.  It became fairly apparent that there wasn’t a lot available for vets in the Four Corners area.

The two vets decided horses and dogs were going to be part of the healing process for veterans, their family members, and other people undergoing stress, emotional pain and anxiety in their lives.  In the nearly three years they have been in operation, Rockin J Reawakenings has helped draw veterans out of isolated situations and embraced them with a sense of community.

Michael Griego, who served on the USS Little Rock from 1972 to 1975, says he’s gotten to the point that he wants to volunteer at the ranch.  He lives alone at Blue Water Lake and claims to have found camaraderie at the ranch. “It’s made me want to be outgoing a little bit more than what I am. When I go to the ranch I don’t get as nervous and stressed.  I have a place to go to to relieve that stress.”

Matt Metzler, also living in Blue Water, is a veteran of operations in Somalia.  He found out about the ranch by word of mouth. “I live in the mountains. It’s given [me] a little more social interaction; meeting new people,” he said. “It’s brought some energy back. It’s reminding me of different things I have to offer. It revitalizes that. It gives me a lot more to look forward to.”

Metzler says that little by little he’s coming out of his shell.  He said, “Horses intimidate the heck out of me. Learned to lead ‘em around and [was] giving them treats. Takes your mind out of your daily grind and the horses are gentle.” He hasn’t ridden one yet, but he figures maybe in another year, he’ll try riding. He says that hasn’t stopped his daughter, though.

“My youngest daughter got to ride on a horse.” He said, happy to note that his daughters love the ranch.

That’s something Kasehagen says is primary.  “It’s not just the veterans, you have to include the family with this.”

Butler agrees.  When asked about the ranch’s mission he says, “Community and kids are our priorities.”

In addition, Rockin J Reawakenings has instituted a program called “Step-Up.”  It’s designed to assist veterans who are homeless and down on their luck.  It offers a meal, and training to help them get a job. It includes interview attire, resumé writing and coaching about interview skills.  In some cases it includes teaching veterans a trade.

Plans now are to get insurance companies to help cover services and become a horse therapy clinic.  Kasehagen says they are evaluating equine programs including the PATH program for horses, which has been around 50 years.

Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.), a federally-registered 501(c3) nonprofit, was formed in 1969 as the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association to promote equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) for individuals with special needs.

Both Butler and Kasehagen emphasize that their programs are community-inclusive and allow for people not related to the armed services to take advantage of what they offer.  They both tell stories about pre-teens who have come to the ranch depressed to the point of suicide, to experience healing.

The Equine Therapy program provides a varied group of horses to ride, handle and care for, and trainers to help with furthering skills.  The program is based on learning how a horse thinks and how, by being able to guide that horse, both the horse and the handler can overcome obstacles.

The ranch’s newest program involves horses who have fallen through the cracks. The ranch accepts equines who are slaughter-bound and works to give them a new purpose.

Another form of healing offered at Rockin J Reawakenings has to do with the dogs at the ranch.  Asked what their jobs are, Butler offered a lighthearted, “mostly chasin’ bunnies.”  But he added that the dogs are wonderful companions and friends to those who visit.

The service dogs program at the ranch assists clients by matching them with emotional service animals through purchase or rescue. Kasehagen talks about developing focused plans for the dogs. Not only are they a source of comfort, but he and Butler are considering training service dogs at the ranch.  “We’re in the process right now of being approved by Medicare, Medicaid.”

One of Rockin J Reawakenings’ challenges is getting the word out that the ranch exists.  Butler and Kasehagen visit local areas carrying a supply of fliers. Word of mouth has drawn some people to their numerous meetings, cookouts, Easter egg hunts and other events.  They also have a web site with a schedule of programs and events at https://rjreawakenings.homesteadcloud.com/

As they build and move forward, Rockin J Reawakenings is looking for help. Donations from horse feed and waterproof winter horse blankets, materials for a greenhouse, flower beds, and lumber are all on the list of items that will help them grow. Additionally, you can find them on Paypal, and on Amazon smile, so people making purchases can donate automatically.

All in all, Rockin J Reawakenings Veterans Center and Ranch is offering something special to the community.  Butler describes it this way, “[We want] to help bring the community together and heal the souls within it. So people can feel safe and productive and obey the law.”

Kasehagen describes that something special using a term from Navy medicine, ‘standing by ready to assist.’

“We’re trying to help our friends and neighbors, the best way we know how.”

For more information contact https://rjreawakenings.homesteadcloud.com/; email: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it ; Jess Butler (505) 409-7764; Mark Kasehagen (505) 331-2260.

By Beth Blakeman
Associate Editor