ALLENDALE, N.J. - Last September, Amy McCambridge-Steppe and her husband Mark Steppe rescued four wild mustangs from government roundups in Nevada and Wyoming and likely futures in slaughter pens in Canada or Mexico.
"It was iffy," Mark said, laughing. "I mean, they're wild horses."
Twelve years before that, Mark returned from a tour in Iraq where he served as a gunner on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle.
"He held his best friend in his arms and he died in his arms," Amy said.
"I drank myself to sleep for two years straight," Mark said. "And as soon as I'd wake up, I'd start drinking. And that's all I wanted to do was just drink."
"It really tore our marriage apart," Amy said. "It tore our entire family apart."
Different veterans organizations sent Mark and Amy on various retreats. The VA prescribed Mark 300 pills a week, placing him on a morphine drip for a bone condition he believes he acquired from handling uranium shells.
"You don't want to be just on meds the whole time," Mark said.
But Mark says he only started to heal, his mind, his heart and his marriage, when he and Amy—at that point not speaking ("I resented him and I think he resented me," she said)—started volunteering at a horse-rescue farm.
"Getting this eleven-hundred-pound wild animal to eventually trust you and come up to you and let you pet it and everything, it feels amazing," Mark said.
Wanting to share that healing with other combat veterans, Mark and Amy started the Unbridled Heroes Project in Allendale, in Bergen County, last year, rescuing those mustangs and three other abused horses in hopes they might help to rescue some people like Mark struggling to process things they saw, experienced and felt during and after their time at war.
"The anxiety and the rage," Dan Caccavale said.
A Marine Corps vet who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan, Dan credits horses with helping him to control and acknowledge that anxiety and rage.
"Because you don't want to not be fine," he said. "You're like, how could I not be fine? Of course I'm fine."
"I actually don't want to forget my military experience," Kevin Henry said. "I lost 13 friends in Vietnam."
Like Dan and Mark, Kevin deployed to war as a teenager and self-medicated with alcohol when he returned home. Kevin had never worked with horses before he started volunteering with Unbridled Heroes last year.
"We just kind of offer [combat veterans] a place [where we say]: You want to try something different? Come hang out with the horses?" Mark said.
Right now, Mark and Amy fund the Unbridled Heroes Project themselves, relying on donations and Mark's army pension to care for the animals and rent barn and pasture space in Allendale, New Jersey, but they've applied for grants and hope to buy a farm of their own.
"I am feeling better," Mark said. "There are ups and downs and it hurts, but in the long run, I feel better."
Mark touts the purpose, the exercise and the distraction the horses provided. Amy praises the healing facilitated by the pairing of two broken spirits—one human and one equine.
"Showing other people how the horses can heal, it's healing in itself for us," Mark said.