Jeremy Harrell wrote his vision for veterans on a napkin while surrounded by 10 fellow soldiers at a Cracker Barrel restaurant.
Since that meeting in November 2017, Harrell founded Veteran’s Club, a nonprofit organization supporting veterans in Kentucky.
“It was a need here in this community and state,” said Harrell, 38, a U.S. Army veteran. “The idea was to have 10 or 11 people just get together and hang out. Now, 1,600 veterans primarily in Louisville and throughout the state have those connections.”
The Veteran’s Club comes alongside veterans and their families through equine therapy, “Camaraderie and Coffee,” family cookouts, warrior yoga, recreational activities and resource fairs.
“One of the things we do is always provide a good meal because we want to recreate that time in the service when we would eat in the field,” added Harrell, a Southeast Christian Church attendee. “It would be a time where we could essentially relax, just kind of goof around and be who we are. We could take our soldier hat off for 30 minutes while we ate on the ground.”
For his efforts to help veterans heal, Harrell was named the Male Kentucky Veteran of the Year in 2018.
“We want to be a one-stop shop for everything veteran related in the state because we want to cut through the red tape,” he said. “It can be discouraging when veterans have to jump through all these hoops. They’re dealing with enough. Our intention is to do all that we can.”
Casualties of war
Harrell served in Iraq for 15 months during the Iraq War. He returned home from Iraq in 2004 and suffered with headaches, difficulty sleeping and fatigue due to a traumatic brain injury. He also was plagued by post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I literally felt like I was a casualty of war even though I was alive here,” Harrell said. “It felt like I was in a foreign country. This did not feel like home to me.
“When you initially get back you have the parades, but then they stopped and nobody’s calling and checking on you.”
Harrell spent the next four years as an operations manager in the Army Reserve, but working behind a desk was difficult.
“It’s really a strange paradigm,” Harrell added. “One minute you’re in the middle of Baghdad and the next minute you’re in Louisville. There’s so much good training to go there. There’s no good training to come back and adapt to the civilian world again.”
Harrell retired from the Army in 2008 and drank alcohol to escape his emotional pain. Harrell and his wife, Erin, have four daughters and two sons.
“My relationships with family and friends, I just killed it,” he said. “I was almost afraid of relationships. I wanted to get rid of them because I was starting to feel some of the things I had to put out of my mind in Iraq because it didn’t serve me there—like compassion, because I may know you today, and you may be gone tomorrow, so I don’t have time to be sad.”
Winning the war
Harrell finally surrendered his life to Christ at a small chapel and was transformed from a casualty of combat to a child of God.
“I was already a believer, but I didn’t know exactly what that looked like,” Harrell said. “What happened during that prayer hasn’t happened since. I remember praying, ‘Use me in your Kingdom. I submit to You. I give You all of me. Right here today, I die to myself. I’m going to get out of my way.’”
God then called Harrell to help other veterans experience eternal victory in Jesus.
“I’ve had the question, ‘Hey, you’ve suffered like I’ve suffered, but you’re out doing these things and you’re genuinely a joyful person and find the good in everything. How do you do that?’” Harrell said. “Everything we do to that point, the equine therapy, yoga or cookouts, that’s the question I want it to lead to. The real reason behind it all is to have a conversation about Jesus.”
The vision of Veteran’s Club was sparked after Harrell got the opportunity of a lifetime.
In November 2017, he was invited to be a guest on the “Today Show” with Megyn Kelly to talk about equine therapy, which is offered to veterans who suffer from PTSD and brain injuries.
Harrell received equine therapy the month before in Kansas with the nonprofit organization called War Horses for Veterans.
“I went back out to Kansas to do that interview, and Megyn Kelly says on the air, ‘Jeremy’s going to do something similar and pay it forward to the veterans in his home state,’” Harrell said. “I was like, ‘Wow, OK.’ We didn’t have a farm or a horse.”
Today, through many generous donations, Veteran’s Club has four horses on a farm in Shelby County and offers equine therapy about four days a month.
Veterans finish in the round pen, a 60-foot circle where they exercise the horse.
“It’s a little intimidating because the horse is running around,” Harrell added. “I’ll say, ‘We’re in here with a horse. It’s a 2,000-pound animal. It’s not a poodle. So if you want this horse to join up with you, you’ve got to figure out what’s going on inside. Let’s figure out why this horse doesn’t want to be around you.’ Once someone is being transparent, the horses come up to them. There are a lot of breakthroughs that happen in the round pen.”
Equine therapy is one of a variety of ways Veteran’s Club walks alongside veterans.
At the end of the day, Harrell wants veterans to take steps toward small victories.
“We’re trying to make sure veterans don’t isolate,” Harrell said. “That they know there are people out there who understand. To be honest, that’s a cop-out for veterans sometimes: ‘Nobody understands.’ My rebuttal to that is we have 1,600 veterans who do.”
For more information, visit www.veteransclubky.com.