By Stephen Spotswood
JACKSONVILLE, FL—It was 7 a.m. on a Wednesday in January—a time when most clinical psychologists would be making their way to the hospital or clinic. But instead of heading to her office at the Naval Hospital Jacksonville Deployment Health Center, Tracy Hejmanowski, PhD, was driving an hour south of the city to begin a new patient on a course of equine-assisted therapy and introduce him to his 1,200-pound therapy companion.
Equine therapy is one of several nontraditional treatments Hejmanowski and her colleagues in Jacksonville have embraced in their mission to helping combat-exposed servicemembers readjust to civilian life.
“We bring combat veterans out into nature to work with animals, and they’re helping the horse get through anxiety,” Hejmanowski explained. “Horses are naturally vigilant, and they hold a lot of the same characteristics as combat veterans. It’s also a very kinetic experience—hands-on and very physical and motion-based. It speaks to our patients in that way.”
As the patients learn how to work with the horse and deal with the animal’s anxiety, they are also learning ways to deal with their own.
Another side benefit of the therapy when it’s conducted with a group of patients is that it creates a sense of camaraderie as a half-dozen servicemembers learn unfamiliar skills in an unfamiliar setting. The men—most of the patients Hejmanowski sees are men—will stay out in the parking lot long after the therapy has ended and talk, she said.
Hejmanowski was familiar with military medicine long before she became a Navy officer. The wife of a Navy medical provider, Hejmanowski volunteered at military treatment facilities wherever she and her husband were stationed. She pursued a naval officer’s commission in 2001 and served as the base psychologist at Naval Hospital, Rota, Spain, for three years. She was then transferred stateside to Naval Medical Center, Portsmouth, VA, where she worked to develop post-traumatic stress program initiatives. She and her family moved to Jacksonville and 2008 where she assumed a civilian post as program manager at the Deployment Health Center.
“Deployment psychology has evolved a lot over the years as the operational tempo has varied,” she explained. During the heavy years of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the focus was on pre-deployment and ensuring servicemembers were physically and psychologically fit for duty. There was less focus on post-deployment.