Veteran promotes horse therapy to help save lives
Vietnam War veteran Bill Mercurio joked that before he first encountered the BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center in Harvard in 2015, the only riding he had done previously was on Chicago's elevated trains.
Unlike his wife, Nancy, Mercurio had no previous experience around horses. But the Machesney Park resident was intrigued by the nonprofit BraveHearts and its mission since 2007 to offer "equine services to provide emotional, cognitive, social and physical benefits for veterans" at no cost to them.
"When you spend time with horses, you discover that they're calming and relaxing," said Mercurio, who started volunteering and riding regularly with BraveHearts in 2016. "Horses are in the moment, and you can lose a lot of anxiety around them."
"Some people you always remember meeting for the first time, and Bill is one of those people," said BraveHearts president and chief operating officer Meggan Hill-McQueeney. "He has so much kindness and wisdom and he just has a real heart to serve and he really folded in perfectly with our organization."
The Mercurios' time with BraveHearts was critical to their grieving process in 2017 when their 28-year-old son, Andrew, died from a fentanyl overdose. They credit their faith and spending time with the horses to help them through.
That same year, Mercurio was chosen to be one of five veteran riders for BraveHearts inaugural Trail to Zero horse riding event to raise awareness for the estimated 20 U.S. veterans who are lost to suicide each day. The ride was in New York and gained national media attention on shows like "Live with Kelly and Ryan" and "Fox & Friends."
Mercurio has participated in each subsequent Trail to Zero ride, the most recent being last month closer to home in Bull Valley, Illinois.
Mercurio recently became a certified instructor with the Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Now 77, Mercurio has joined the BraveHearts staff as its veteran relations coordinator, a position created just for him just a few months ago.
"Bill can transcend working with veterans who are dealing with PTSD, he can work with veterans who are dealing with spinal cord injuries, he can work with veterans who are dealing with substance abuse," Hill-McQueeney said. "He really is quite exceptional in his depth of knowledge -- not only with the horses, but also in life in general."
Mercurio hopes his volunteering and work with BraveHearts will have helped others.
"Even if it's only one life, that's all that matters," Mercurio said.
Mercurio will be riding as part of a drill team for a drive-through Veterans Day event from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. Wednesday at BraveHearts, 7319 Maxon Road, Harvard. For more information, visit braveheartsriding.org.