Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder that may develop after a person is exposed to traumatic events. Symptoms include but are not limited to flashbacks, avoiding similar situations that set up the traumatic event, hyper anxiety, anger outbursts, nightmares and many other unpleasant behaviors.
I am not an expert, in reality I know very little about PTSD, but I witnessed an amazing program geared to our veterans retuning home with various levels of PTSD. Here’s my account of what I saw, heard, and felt while volunteering for a pilot program. This disorder is also very difficult on the spouses and families of our veterans as well. While there are many attempts to treat PTSD within the processes of the Veterans Administration medical coverage, many of our veterans are released from care once their physical wounds have healed to the point that they will not get any better from either treatment or physical therapy and sent back to active duty or medically discharged to live on as a disabled veteran with invisible scars.
PTSD veterans aren’t always physically wounded. They may have avoided being physically injured but have been mentally scarred from the situation they have endured. Spouses and caregivers endure occasional tense living situations, bouts of meanness, unusual quiet times, lack of positive emotions or reinforcement of care and love. The pain the spouse/family/caregiver feels is real and makes them feel unloved, ignored, and valueless in the life of our veteran.
Breakthroughs have been made in using horses to treat this disorder but it’s expensive, and requires a room full of specialists not just a therapist. Besides a clinical therapist who can understand and notice the very different ways the disorder is surfacing in each individual, the qualified equine therapist is necessary, and horses with handlers are required. Because of the complications and logistics of getting this formula together and the outrageous costs, the few places trying this are doing only one day sessions. Also one cannot just set up shop in any open store front in a strip mall. A barn / ranch is necessary with meeting rooms, for breakout sessions, close door group and individual therapy sessions and projects to draw out the thoughts a feelings so they can be addressed.
Operation Horses and Heroes realizes a single day is not enough, not even a surface scratch, in fact the successes gained were not noticeable until well into a 4 day program. However the breakthroughs were huge, life changers in the words of the veterans.
I was there, I saw it, I watched the very countenance of the individuals improve with time and after each daily session I began to see the changes in their eyes, attitude towards strangers, and other individuals, but most importantly in the family dynamic. This is also a program for the spouses to come and also spend time in understanding the disorder, to interpret the non-verbal communications, to understand the motive behind the outbursts and to know what triggers to look for.
Spouses had their own therapy sessions and it was powerful to witness the changes there as well.
What it is not… it’s not horseback riding, or riding lessons, it’s not learning trail riding or horsemanship 101. The horses are a vehicle, a tool, used to draw out certain thoughts or behaviors, create situations for challenging, healing and learning. Many of the veterans did not even get up on a horse.
I cannot begin to make it sound like I knew what was taking place, but I can tell you I saw 8 individuals go into a program on Monday and by Friday they were changed, well on their way to understanding and dealing with PTSD, marriages and relationships pointed in the right direction.
One of the sources of healing was unexpected… it came from the many volunteers. In their own words the veterans and their spouse’s felt their value because of the numerous people and organizations that gave their time. The one thing no one ever seems to have enough of. Personal time. That was a gift well received and helped carry weight into their minds that they still matter. That they are important to others, that total strangers would gave up their time, which is a lot harder to donate than money or things. My eyes welled up many times as each individual expressed their gratitude, as spouses shared appreciation for saving their marriage, as veterans who had nothing left but the clothes on their backs made commitments to turn their situation around and feel valuable and productive again.
Operation Horses and Heros, search for it on Facebook, Like it, and follow it, and hopefully you’ll soon hear about sessions for healing early this summer. You want to see your life changed and watch other change before your eyes. Come, give your time. It’s not hard, it’s not demanding, it’s not threating. It is healing.