‘Trail to Zero’ through Manhattan raises awareness of veteran suicide

BraveHearts, the leading equine rehabilitation program for veterans, embarked on its 5th annual “Trail to Zero” ride through Manhattan on Saturday, Oct. 1.

Accompanied by the NYPD Mounted Unit and undeterred by the less-than-stellar weather forecast, the trail stepped off at 102nd Street Transverse in Central Park. It stopped at the NYPD Substation on 43rd Street in Times Square and Engine 18 in the West Village before proceeding to the Freedom Towers for a moment of silence. 

Every day, 20 veterans die by suicide in the United States, and the 20-mile ride through Manhattan aims to raise awareness of the mental and emotional struggles former soldiers experience and honor the lives lost. 

Meggan Hill-McQueeney, president and COO of BraveHearts,  said that the event wants to encourage veterans to get involved with the free program, which uses the non-traditional approach of horse therapy to help veterans heal. 

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 10 to 30 percent of veterans have PTSD, and research has shown that equine therapy significantly reduces emotional stress within a fairly short time. 

“We’re just hoping to make the message louder that it a great way for vets to find solace and to get help,”  Hill-McQueeney said. “We know people are struggling, but there’s help out there. And if they haven’t tried a horse, that’s what this message is all about: Getting involved with a program that has horses.”

Barry Gelbman, NYPD Inspector with the Mounted Unit, explained that his team provided security for the BraveHearts organization on their ride through New York City. 

“The goal of the “Trail to Zero” ride is that we have to ride zero miles, okay, so that there’s no more veteran suicide in the United States. They are doing God’s work.” Inspector Gelbman said,  referring to the BraveHearts organization.  

Walking the 'Trail to Zero' to raise awareness of veteran suicide
Meggan Hill-McQueeney passes through Times Square. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
“Trail to Zero” veterans and their horses seek shelter from the rain storm while the NYPD Mounted Unit provides security. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
“Trail to Zero” veterans Benjamin Jalove and Jonathan Byrne visit Engine 18 in the West Village. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann
“Trail to Zero” veterans and their horses pay tribute to the 9/11 victims. Photo by Gabriele Holtermann

The trail made a pit stop at Engine Company 18 in the West Village to refuel horses and riders, and firefighters had a chance to interact with the two and four-legged trail members while they were waiting for the rain storm to pass. 

Jonathan Byrne, a former Marine, joined BraveHearts last November and started riding in March. He admitted that he had been afraid of horses because he was tossed off a horse as a teenager, but Meggan Hill-McQueeney helped him overcome his fear. He now spends every Thursday and Friday at the facility.

“These horses are huge magnets for negative emotions,” Byrne said. “They take all the negative emotion right out and leave me totally happy at the end of the day. I come in with a frown; I leave with a smile.”

 Brooke Milbocker, who also was with the United States Marine Corp, struggled with PTSD and addiction and lost two family members and a friend to suicide.

“It’s so important that people understand what’s going on and how important mental health is as well as physical health, and what we do with the horses is absolutely incredible,” Milbocker said. “It’s so healing on so many different levels, and I just feel like people need to know more about it. It saved my life. And I’ve seen it transform so many other people’s lives.”