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UW-Eau Claire graduate pulls from experience to support fellow veterans

| Denise Olson

Photo caption: Kinesiology and special education alumnus Brandon Drost, left, is a corrections program supervisor at the Stanley Corrections Institution. He recently made a visit to campus to see local business owner and author Toni Mattson who was presenting a new book titled "Unlilkey Recruits," a book featuring Drost and other veterans.

At the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, we make it a priority to honor and support our veteran and military-connected students. One way we provide that support is through efforts to stay connected to our military and veteran students after graduation and remain a resource when needed. 

One veteran and 2006 alumnus who recently visited campus is Brandon Drost, who completed a kinesiology and physical education degree after serving for four years in the U.S. Army Infantry 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, Kentucky.

Drost visited campus to attend a presentation and book reading by an old friend, and he made sure to also reconnect with his friend and UW-Eau Claire’s adult and military service manager Miranda Cross-Schindler.

“Brandon was a wonderful student during his time at UW-Eau Claire and a strong advocate for his fellow military-connected and veteran students,” Cross-Schindler says. “His passion to serve others is exceptional and I feel fortunate to have him as a friend. I was proud to show him the recently renovated Veterans Center, and we enjoyed some great conversations about life, family and his rewarding experiences working with veterans in our community.”

Drost currently works as a corrections program supervisor at the Stanley Correctional Institution in Chippewa County, a medium-security state prison for men. In this role, Drost says he is working to support fellow veterans through the kind of work he always wanted to do but admits the road to get there didn’t always go as planned.

A long path to his dream job

After graduating, Drost says he did not end up teaching physical education but instead found career success working in the auto industry.

“I’d been working as a manager in the auto industry but asked myself one day what I was doing to really help people, and I didn’t have an answer,” Drost says. “I reached out to UWEC and asked what I would need to do to add an additional license to teach special education and returned to school in 2015.”

After completing his courses and practicum requirements, Drost was recruited to teach for the Wisconsin Department of Corrections. He began teaching at the Jackson Correctional Institution and transferred a year later to the Stanley Correctional Institution.

In his role as a corrections program supervisor, Drost had the idea to create a separate wing of the facility dedicated to veteran inmates, a plan that was completed in 2018. At that time, Drost explained to a Stanley media outlet how this plan could blend what he knew of military life with the key elements of rehabilitation.

“I felt that incorporating values instilled by the military at one point in these men’s lives could help reduce recidivism. It could give them a sense of belonging to something bigger than themselves and a mission of finding ways to give back to the community,” Drost said.

Drost emphasized community connection and sought area services and programs to bring into the facility to work with the veterans.

One of the first programs that came to mind was one he was familiar with and that he knew to be successful — an equine therapy program run by Trinity Equestrian Center in Eau Claire. Drost knew the program was effective because it had worked for him while he was a student the second time at UW-Eau Claire.

From reluctance participant to program proponent

In 2014, Drost says he happened to go with a friend to ride horses for fun at an area stable. After facility owner Toni Mattson learned about his military service, Mattson told Drost about a program the stable offered called the Veteran Wellness Program.

The theory behind Mattson’s Veteran Wellness Program, which is free to veterans, surrounds the common issues of post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, depression and even thoughts of self-harm that many veterans experience. Mattson says that horses are uniquely keen to human mental and emotional states, making them a great partner in healing.

“The veterans we’ve served often have a history of struggles with relationships,” Mattson says. “Horses don’t judge people. They live in the moment, and this allows the veterans to let their guard down and relax.”

The veterans do not ride the horses as part of the therapy. Instead, they handle and groom the animals, or just walk the property with them supervised by both mental health and equine experts. Mattson says a relationship of trust is developed between the vets and the horses.

“Trust can’t be demanded of these 1,200-pound 'friends.' It must be earned, and healing happens in that space,” Mattson says in describing the program.

Mattson and Drost developed a strong friendship through his work in the therapy program and other volunteering at the equestrian center. When Mattson decided to write a book about all she had seen and learned in creating the program, she says Drost’s story was one she wanted to share.

“Brandon is a great example of what can happen if you're willing to step into the journey of healing. It's a process and it rarely happens quickly. But Brandon was in for the long haul ... eventually,” she says.

She says Drost was initially very resistant, but when he connected with two very special horses she saw that all change.

"He became motivated, committed and cooperative — it was amazing to see the transformation that happened within his head and heart,” Mattson says.

Drost recalls how that bond with the animals forced him to see himself in new ways, and ultimately to reshape the way he was dealing with his feelings.

“So many days I thought I was successful at hiding how I was feeling, but the horse would become a mirror for me. It was easy to see what I was trying to hide,” he says. “When I talked to friends and family about it all, they agreed that I had been hiding things I was feeling. The ways the horse reacted to me gave me an honest look at how I was really doing inside each day, and I wanted to work to feel better.”

A campus reunion with a mentor and program partner

When Drost learned that Mattson would be presenting her book at UW-Eau Claire, he knew he needed to be there. He says it was wonderful to see Mattson in person and reconnect, but admits that parts of her presentation were difficult for him to hear.

“Toni and I have stayed in contact since my time at Trinity, but we don’t catch up as often as we used to," Drost says. "It was hard for me to listen to her read about me from the book, however. I’m not proud of the person I was when I started the program, or how I treated her and her staff. Fortunately, today we have a great relationship.”

After opening the veterans’ wing in the Stanley Correctional Institution, Drost and Mattson began working on ways to bring the Veteran Wellness Program to that facility.

In December 2021, Mattson received a one-year state grant of $25,000 to operate the Stanley program she named “Forgotten Veterans,” efforts that brought two horses weekly to interact with inmates in the same ways Drost had done years earlier. He says that due to current staffing constraints, the equine program had to be put on hold, but he hopes to bring the animals back to Stanley when resources allow. 

Mattson says her admiration for Drost only grew from this joint venture to support fellow veterans.

“It was rewarding to see how determined Brandon was to help other veterans experience the freedom and healing he found working with the horses,” Mattson says.

“I’m so proud of him! Brandon’s story is perfect proof to me that things can get better for everyone when they get the help they need.”

Find support for yourself or for a veteran you know

For more information about campus services and support for military-connected students, contact or Miranda Cross-Schindler, UWEC’s military service manager.

To learn more about the veteran wing of the Stanley Correctional Institution that Drost established, see this recent post from the Wisconsin Department of Corrections news blog, in which four residents of the wing discuss the ways this program is helping them prepare for a return to their communities. 

For more information about the Trinity Equestrian Center's Veteran Wellness Program, contact Toni Mattson