JOHNS ISLAND, S.C. – William Britton doesn’t remember much about the accident.
It was April 1972 and Britton – a handsome young Army private and loyal Charlestonian – was driving a military vehicle on his way home from Fort Bragg, N.C.
While traveling along the interstate, a few miles outside of Pineville, S.C., Britton lost control of the car. Local servicemen later found him lying unconscious alongside the highway, amongst twisted metal wreckage. Britton was badly injured, but alive.
After being rushed to the hospital, he regained consciousness. However, things had changed and the world that Britton awoke to was much different than the one he had previously been living. He was suffering from severe nerve damage. He had a broken neck and was soon informed by nurses that he was paralyzed from the shoulders down.
Britton eventually regained use of his extremities, but the nerve damage limited his mobility and he was forced to use a walker. The car accident changed his life forever.
Today, Britton lives downtown off of Bee Street, on the fourth floor of the Ralph H. Johnson Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in a very comfortable full-care, in-house living facility known as Patriots Harbor. The newly-remodeled rooms are decorated with dark mahogany lining and name placards identifying the tenant’s military branch and years of service.
Next to the television that sits against the far wall is Britton’s broken wheelchair. He says – with a laugh – that the makers of his high-tech chair are so worried about him getting hurt that it automatically shuts down whenever he tries to mess around on it.
Despite the cadre of smiling nurses available to him around the clock, what Britton enjoys most is being outside. His favorite place is a therapeutic horse riding center on Johns Island known as CATR Farms. He enjoys spending time with the horses, grooming and feeding them. His favorite horse is a beautiful Haflinger cross mare, named Buttercup.
Over time, Buttercup and Britton have learned to trust each other – they are friends.
The Charleston Area Therapeutic Riding Center – or CATR for short – lies just beyond the overhanging trees and Spanish moss that line River Road – a narrow two-lane drive on Johns Island. Resting idyllically on the grounds of an old 43-acre sea island cotton plantation, the facilities have long been a retreat for those suffering from a myriad of afflictions, including, developmental delays, spinal cord injuries, amputations and cerebral palsy to name a few.
The Center also opens its doors to military veterans suffering from the physical and mental ramifications of war.
Today, a white bus full of wounded warriors are visiting CATR Farms as a part of the ‘Horses for Heroes Program’ working in conjunction with Lowcountry Lieutenant Dan Week. Waiting for the veterans are an eclectic collection of volunteers from all walks of life.
The tallest and most noticeable amongst the crowd are College of Charleston men’s basketball players Theo Johnson and Nori Johnson. Standing next to them is men’s basketball head coach Doug Wojcik, a 1987 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, and his wife, Lael, who has volunteered at similar therapeutic horse riding facilities in the past in Tulsa, Okla.
“I know that for Doug and I, this is inspiring,” said the 1990 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where she and her husband met. “It’s great that Theo and Nori are able to come out as well and meet these men and women who have given so much for our country.”
After a hearty lunch of fried chicken, pasta salad and refreshments, volunteers and veterans alike are split into groups, each heading off to different activities.
It is an afternoon of respite for the veterans. Darryl, a double amputee grooms Raldiene – a Norwegian pony – while Nori and Theo throw a lasso and play horseshoes with the children. The Wojcik’s help the veterans from one group clean and walk with Buttercup.
Some of the veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The horses help to calm their nerves, and the farm’s enchanting aesthetics help settle their anxieties.
For many of the veterans, the work helps activate muscles they are not used to using. For those no longer able to walk, the horse’s gait mimics that of a human, helping to activate important core muscle groups.
Everyone is smiling.
CATR Farms would ultimately like their veterans to represent one third of their overall program. Given the high volume of people they work with – the veterans’ programs still has a way to go, but the early signs are encouraging.
“For a lot of our veterans, who may be having a hard time reconnecting to people after their time away, what we provide is a safe environment where they can connect through the horses,” said Amanda Addy, an instructor and community relations director at CATR. “Most of our veterans have reported back to us that they feel much better after being out here. It’s essentially physical therapy, but you’re doing things you would never get to do in a clinic.”
The opportunity to honor the veterans who protected our liberties and integrating CofC student-athletes into the local philanthropic community, is priceless. It’s also a lesson in perspective, and fits in with Coach Wojcik’s mission to develop well-rounded young men within a culture of genuine integrity and benevolence.
“It is a humbling experience,” said Nori Johnson, a senior guard from Greer, S.C. “The opportunity to give back to those who sacrificed so much for our country is something that we’re happy to be a part of.”
Editor’s Note: CATR Farms will be featured in the November 2013 issue of Charleston Magazine.