Veteran Joe Worley's service dog taking a nap during production.

Episode 106 - Healing through Animals

May 8, 2024

Stacy Pearsall sits down for a candid conversation with Joe Worley, Nina Guerra and Ron Johnson, three fellow veterans who tap into the power of animals to find peace, on episode 106 - Mind, Body, Spirit Animals. A few topics of conversation relayed around different types of service animals, the process of acquiring one, and how they impact military members.


Q: Stacy to Joe, Nina, and Ron 

“I had started looking at getting a service animal, a dog that could help me be more independent and less worried about the burden I was going to be on others. The thing was, we as veterans tend to downplay our service. We tend to always put others ahead of ourselves. And for me, the one thing I kept saying was, "Oh, there are more amputees that should be ahead of me. There are more blind veterans that should be ahead of me. But seriously, that's how we think, right?" 


A: Nina 

"Yeah. It's just -- It's -- I mean, even coming on this show for me, it's like, "Well, like, I don't know. There are other people who should be highlighted, right?" Even as I started, like, my nonprofit, I'm like, "Yeah, I want to share my story, but maybe it's not as good as a story as somebody else's." Like, you know, it's like, so I've had to find exactly that. It's like, "This is me, this is who I am, this is my story." So it's like I can share it and just let people either resonate with it or not.” 


A: Joe 

"What I don't want is for you to feel my size in neediness. I don't want you to see that you have to pander to what I need. I don't want to be somebody that's like, "Oh, be careful. Don't say anything remotely like I'm pulling your leg or anything around him." I don't want to be one of those type of people that throws my service in people's faces. You don't do that to people. That's such a low blow."


Q: Stacy to Ron 

"Ron, what do you think it is about birds that you find comfort? Like what -- what do you derive from them?"


A: Ron 

"They're human beings with feathers. Literally. They're capable of conversation, they're capable of action, reaction. Whatever you want to call it. I've watched -- You would not believe the mentality of some of these. It's just unreal. It's a 3- to 5-year-old kid for eight years. And, you know, for those of you that have had kids, you can understand that."


Q: Stacy to Nina 

“Nina, I want to talk to you a little bit about your culture because I know that's come up in conversation before and how that impacts what you're doing. How did you get into equine therapy? I know about dogs… But I'm really curious. As a fellow horse person, what do you find that's -- What do you find that's therapeutic about horses? How did you get into them? And tell me a little bit about the program you're developing.” 


A: Nina 

"So, I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, like in the city. But my gran-- my mother's father's side of the family, he grew up down in South Texas near Corpus. And -- my grandpa -- the same one. He was a Korean veteran. He got drafted in the Army and he went to Korea. He grew up in the ranching world. So, I mean, had he not got drafted, he probably would have been a rancher and stayed down there. So, we would spend summers down there. And that was kind of like my escape from, like, a violent home life. That was like -- When I went down to the ranch and, like, was immersed in, like, that country, rural living, I could, like, breathe. I could -- And I didn't know it then. I didn't know it was therapeutic. I just knew that I could relax. And that followed me. Everywhere that I was stationed, I would reach out to like local barns just to volunteer, like, muck the stalls, like, get some horse time. Well, I was stationed in California, and I got this wild hair that I wanted a second job. I know. Talk about, like, Type A, like, overachiever personality. Like, I was already studying undergrad and psychology, and I became a respite care nanny for children with special needs, specifically autism. So, yeah, one of the children, I would take her to her PATH riding lessons, which they focus more on, like, therapeutic riding for disability, physical disabilities. And I was like, "Oh, wow, I didn't know that, like, horsemanship could be therapeutic in this sense." End of my career now, I'm in Charleston and it all kind of came full circle. I did the same thing, reached out to a local barn. It happened to be an equine-assisted therapy barn. And at that time, like, I didn't really know much about, like, how clinicians were incorporating therapeutic riding into the two. Like, I had a conversation with the lead clinician there, the founder, and I was like, "This is exactly, like, what I want to do. I don't know how I'm gonna do it yet, but this is what I want to do." I want to tie, like, the ranch life therapy. That's kind of like the ranching side and the equestrian side, the horse -- therapeutic horsemanship. So we, her and I got to talking and she was like, "Well, you know, like, if this is something you want to do down the road," which, yeah, you say it like I didn't think about that. I did. I tricked myself into therapy... I wholeheartedly believe that when you work with that large of an animal, you kind of have to put your attention on that animal. So whether you're stressing about anything that's happening outside of that space, it's gonna come up. And whether you realize it or not, like, the horse is going to pick up on that energy. And again, it's something that, like, that bond or, like, feeling, the way that the horse responds to your energy, it's like something that is just so indescribable. So as I knew, like, what the end goal was to get my PhD. And, like, be a clinician not only for, like, was that my end goal, but even more so as I was working towards transitioning out and, like, there are not enough veteran clinicians at that. Like, and my own mental health journey. And, like, talking to other clinicians that were, like, while I was still active duty, it's like, "Wait a minute, you have no military experience at all? Like, you have no idea what it's like to sign your life away for X amount of years, but you want me to sit here and tell you about my experience? Uh, yeah, no." And it's, like, the acronyms. "Oh, what does that mean? What does that mean?" And it's like, "I don't want to have to tell you what every little thing means." And it's like, it's not fair to the veteran. I didn't feel like it was fair to me. And that, coupled with, like, the equine therapy, I'm like, "No, this is what I'm gonna do." Not only has this be-- like, was the end goal for me, but it's like I felt the need to do that for other veterans that I know would probably, you know, given the right, like, setting, they may not ever want to talk about it and it's not fair to them to have to talk to people who have no idea. I get it. I get it because I'm in -- going through the training myself. These clinicians go through so much training to understand the psyche and personalities and understand people's body language. But it's not enough when you -- when you speak to the veteran community. You said, like, we're not doing enough. I completely agree. No, we're not doing enough. These, like, PTSD cocktails, if you will, like the medications and like, "Oh, you have to wait X amount of time to talk to a therapist. Oh, you're very high functioning. So you can -- we'll put you on the wait list to speak to --" That's not enough. And that's a lot of my own journey. It's like, "You're very high functioning." It's like, "Yeah, and you don't know how much it took just to have this conversation with you. And now you're really setting me off by telling me that I'm not depressed enough." 


Q: Stacy to Joe 

"Why don't we do a little reverse in time? And what led up to you getting involved with service animals? Like, let's hear about your experience a little bit in the Navy as a corpsman. "


A: Joe 

"I almost went into the Marines straight out of high school, but I'm a mama's boy and she talked me out of it. And it's good. I wasn't -- I was not -- I would not have made it in the Marines as the 18-year-old that I was. I needed another year or two. I'd have got chewed up and spit out, I think. And so luckily, when I went in again, you know, I was with my wife and went into the Navy thinking that I would not necessarily end up with the Marines, but I'd probably do something like a military -- like dog M.P.s or something like that. But then, you know, I realize what corpsmen do, and I like the idea of the medical field. I like the idea of being somebody that is under pressure because I know that that's the only time my stupid brain turns on is when there's pressure. And I went over to Fallujah, Iraq, with the I Marines on Labor Day of 2004. I ended up losing most of my second squad to a suicide bomber. And we had a rough time, first assault on Fallujah. And on September 17th, about two weeks after or before we were scheduled to go home, the first vehicle in our convoy got hit. I jump out and go running up to try to help. That morning, I had chosen food over getting my gear exactly the way I wanted, and I will do that for the rest of my life. So, if you ever want to catch me slipping, get me before breakfast. But I had my 9-millimeter on my hip, and I always carried it on my side. Out of the entire 6 1/2, 7 months that we were over there, you probably couldn't have caught me two or three days without that weapon being on my leg instead of up here where I always carried it. So anyway, I had my 9-millimeter on my hip. I run up to the first vehicle. Bomb goes off. The first vehicle had been hit with an I.E.D. I jump out and go running up to try to help. Bomb goes off, hits me on foot, and whatever it was, that hit me me busted that 9-mil into five pieces on my hip. Would've went through me like butter. I would not be here right now. I was already almost dead. Left leg was traumatically amputated. Give or take a tendon or two and right leg was severely messed up. I was able to roll over and put a tourniquet on. Being the corpsman, that was my job. It was just a ringing in my ears. I couldn't hear anything. And strangely enough, one of the first things I heard was they called me K.I.A. Said, "Doc Worley is K.I.A." And the reason I didn't like that -- It wasn't like they were giving up on me. What I didn't like is that a bunch of Marines just heard their corpsman got killed over the radio. And that's not -- You can't -- That doesn't happen, no. And so I was like, "That's not happening." And, um... It's just a heavy blow, you know. I mean, part of what I did there is what I do here, you know? I mean, I'm a morale guy. You know, I'm not trying to pat myself on the back. I like to make people happy. I like knowing that people look at me and they say, "Hey, if Doc says he's gonna come for you, he's gonna be there. And there's absolutely nothing that's gonna stop him. He doesn't care if he's walking into it and he knows it's gonna kill him... So the Marine got out of that vehicle that survived and was able to let me know that there's nothing that I could do. So there I am. I got a three-month-old daughter. I'm getting -- They come pick me up. They take me back to base. You know, I go through a series of surgeries while I was in Baghdad, Balad, and to Landstuhl. And so, I got back. That was September 17th. I got back on the 22nd of September 2004. And that's when I saw my daughter for the first time and got to see my wife, and my family showed up. And then when a series of surgeries that -- that were just wild and through that process of the next year and a half of trying to recover, I saw a lot of people that were not doing well. I saw a lot of people that were struggling… I realized that there was the hole. And I mentioned a little bit of that earlier is that when you get out of the military, you don't -- you don't realize the gap that it leaves in your life of being a part of a big family that's doing something that's bigger than you. And so, I accidentally sort of fell into nonprofit work just to help because I liked meeting people, and they were taking people on trips and I'd get to go visit people and meet people. I've never been one of those people that was like, "Take me on every trip you're going on." I try to spread it out. I went on like two ski trips over two years and they were calling in, asking me to go, you know, and I'm more than happy to do so…I mean, I remember the first couple of months when we would go out to the mall, I kept a blanket over my legs because I didn't want to make people feel grossed out. And, you know, I forget who -- I think it was my buddy Matt. But he said to me, he's like, "Look, if they can't handle looking at it, they don't deserve what it represents. They don't deserve the fact that they can do what they're doing with their lives because of people like you." But I got involved with America's VetDogs because I was on the second ski trip and they had a facility dog there by the name of Deuce that was there with Harvey, who was the occupational therapist there…But I fell in love, and I put an application in for all the wrong reasons. And so, I absolutely realized that not only was Benjamin trained to help mitigate that physical disability, I got that sneaky therapy. I mean, I had somebody to talk to. Being completely surrounded by people or animals that you trust is important."