On any given morning, Equest's Texas Horse Park in South Dallas is a hub of service where military veterans receive equine therapy while volunteering to take care of the park's horses.
Overseeing this free program for veterans is Jeff Hensley, who spent 21 years as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Navy and did a second tour fighting on the ground in Iraq.
Hensley is all too familiar with the challenges of military service, especially in combat.
“I mean, you never knew when you were out there, when you were in a Humvee driving through town, you never knew when something was gonna happen,” said Hensley.
But he did know his mission. He had a purpose, a job to do. It’s a feeling that was missing after his two decades of military service was over.
“The biggest thing for me was I just didn’t know who I was supposed to be anymore,” said Hensley.
Hensley was diagnosed with depression and thought asking for help was a sign of weakness.
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“What became very apparent to me was that my behavior was having a hugely adverse impact on my children and that was what really was the motivator to get out there to get some help,” said Hensley.
He was a single father and started to get help by enrolling his children in equine therapy.
“I kind of watched them from the cheap seats, watched their progress going through there and that’s what started getting me excited because I started thinking, ‘Maybe this is something that could help me too,’” said Hensley.
Through a fellowship from nonprofit The Mission Continues, he got paired up with the equine therapy folks at Equest.
“That really wound up being the thing that gave me my new fit too. That’s where I found my identity, and once I did then it kind of changed the whole trajectory,” said Hensley.
Hensley is now a counselor and oversees Equest’s veterans program, Hooves for Heroes.
Finding a new purpose, also improved his personal relationships. Four years ago, during orientation for The Mission Continues, he met Colleen, a fellow Navy veteran.
The day of this interview the two were setting up for their wedding ceremony, which was held on the grounds surrounding Equest.
Finding a new way to serve has helped every aspect of Hensley’s life. And every day, he keeps working to pay it forward.
“To be on the other side and let this whole process come full circle, yes, it’s really cool,” Hensley said.