BY EMILY BRUNS
OREGON — Rows of American flags placed along Pegasus Special Riders’ driveway waved veteran Brian Sawlsville welcome on his way to the “Heroes on Horses,” event, held in his honor. Pegasus Special Riders, a non-profit therapeutic horseback riding organization, proudly debuted Sawlsville as their first veteran for their “Heroes on Horses” event.
Sawlsville, who is back home in Rochelle after serving two tours in Afghanistan and one last tour in Iraq, is one of a generation of young war veterans, physically affected by the war. After a bomb exploded under a truck near him during his last term in Iraq, Sawlsville’s life changed instantaneously as he turned from a healthy young man to being confined to a wheelchair. He will be the first veteran to received therapeutic horse training through the “Heroes on Horses” program.
According to Pegasus executive director, Wayne Copeland, the riding sessions will serve to provide “Physical, mental and emotional healing” for Brian. Pegasus volunteers, Ginny Johnson and Gail Faber said that therapeutic horseback riding can be physically beneficial, as it stimulates muscles and triggers neurons in the brain.
This is because the walking movements of a horse are similar to that of a human.
“Our number one goal is to help the veterans mainstream back in and have fun along the way. This is our way of saying ‘Thank you’ to Brian for all that he’s done for us,” said Copeland.
Supporters of the event, consisting of volunteer staff; Patriot Guard and Oregon’s VFW awaited Sawlsville’s arrival and clapped when he entered the Pegasus dome. The VFW representatives raised flags in honor of the young veteran’s arrival. Copeland initiated the welcome to Sawlsville.
“On behalf of Pegasus instructors, over 100 volunteers and our veterans, we welcome you home,” he said.
Following his welcome, Copeland also introduced Sawlsville to Vietnam veteran, Ralph Zordell. Zordell, from Franklin Grove, has five Vietnam tours, 21 years in military sevice and 24 years of teaching military training experience under his belt. Despite the fact that Sawlsville is a stranger, Zordell took it upon himself to sponsor the first six weeks of riding therapy.
“They needed a sponsor and I was happy to give back to a young vet. I thought it would be a lot of fun and give him confidence along the way,” said Zordell.
Another veteran, Mel Lloyd, from the Oregon VFW, also gave thanks and respect to Sawlsville.
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“We are in the business of honoring military. It’s rare to be able to support a young person and we are honored to be here.”
In addition to the veterans that feel connected to Brian’s experience, volunteers at Pegasus, such as David Brown, more commonly known as “Cowboy Dave” and Ginny Johnson, have had family members serve in the armed forces and felt personally touched by his presence.
“Supporting a veteran is one of the greatest things we can do. My father died in the war and I grew up without a dad because of it. It is a personal matter and we have been waiting to do this,” said Brown.
Shortly after his arrival to Pegasus, Sawlsville wheeled up a platform and mounted a beautiful black horse named “Black Jack,” with a few volunteers at his side. After a few minutes of riding around the enclosed course and letting the experience soak in, Sawlsville spoke to his supporters.
“It feels amazing to be back on a horse. I haven’t been on one in five-and-a half to six years. It’s breathtaking having support. It feels very good.”
Brian also mentioned that riding horses used to be a past time he enjoyed with friends on a regular basis, before his five years as an army crewman. He then shared how his life changed after waking up from a coma that was induced by the bomb injury.
“The next thing I knew, I woke up about two weeks later to nurses, doctors and my Dad.”
It took me a while to comprehend what happened to me,” he said.
“When I came home I thought, ‘What am I going to do?’ Then I realized that stuff happens. It’s your choice to do what it takes to move on. You can either be that guy that was hurt and overpowered it or the guy in the chair.”
Sawlsville, who works at the Focus House in Rochelle, uses working with kids as a motivation to stay positive and to be a good role model. He said that if his legs heal, he would want to partake in activities with the kids, such as basketball and baseball.
Following the conclusion of Sawlsville’s first ride, Pegasus has officially started its new “Heroes for Horses” program. Pegasus volunteers are hopeful to train and assist more veterans and to give back to those that have served for this country. Any veterans interested in the program are encouraged to contact Pegasus Special Riders.