Trauma Healing for Our Veterans using
Equine Facilitated Experiential Learning (EFEL)
I have always had a huge heart space for veterans and their challenges, especially those from my own generation’s war, Vietnam. In my work with the homeless, I have learned that many homeless veterans from that era have existed on the streets for years, suffering from the symptoms of untreated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I am drawn to the challenge of healing this on-going trauma for these men and women who served in the military, not just in the Vietnam era, but in all wars and conflicts. As we understand more about the ramifications of war, and as individuals tell their stories, my hope is that we can finally end war and find alternatives to resolving conflicts of global territorial concerns and resource acquisition.
My father was a Navy Veteran of WWII. He did not talk about his war experiences until the last two weeks of his life. As he lay dying, he talked almost non-stop for several days, going in and out of consciousness, about what he had seen and experienced fifty years earlier, as an almost-eighteen-year-old, fresh off the farm. He described being on a ship that came in behind battles and pulled bodies and body parts out of the water for days, arranging them on the decks, in an attempt to ID the fallen infantrymen, so they could be listed as dead, rather than MIA (Missing in Action). Every time he was on shore leave, he got another limb tattooed and registered the image with the Navy, so that if just his arm was found, his mother would know for sure that he was dead. Daddy never told me he loved me, never expressed any emotion, other than frustration and worry. I believe it was because he worked so hard to keep the horror and trauma of his war years contained. Perhaps, if he felt anything, he would have to feel all of it, and that was just not acceptable. I so appreciated learning, just before he died, of what had happened to him as a young man in that war. It helped me to forgive his emotional distance. If only he had told his story sooner, there might have been a chance for him to melt the steel box around his heart. But that generation of veterans had fought a ‘good’ war, were hailed as heroes when they returned, and were expected to resume life in post-war America. Most of them did, but their war trauma was rarely addressed.
“Once you were there, you couldn’t leave. You were in constant danger. Combat soldiers don’t see the suffering, the results of either surviving or dying, but medics do. I shut down emotionally.
I stopped trying to connect.”
Vietnam Veteran, Bob Lecy
I had the privilege of interviewing one of the military veterans involved in a program called Warriors in Transition (WIT), at Fifth Element Ranch in Loveland, Colorado. Tara Pogoda, the owner of the facility and program director, suggested it would be good for me to interview someone that was a participant, in addition to the information that she provided about the program. I also got to join a session with Bob, Max and Tara the day I went to the ranch to meet the horses.
The Mission Statement: Warriors in Transition facilitates successful reintegration of veterans through an innovative equine therapeutic program that teaches skills to live autonomous, meaningful civilian lives while managing symptoms such as depression, anxiety, physical tension, recurring disturbing thoughts, emotional distress and other problems associated with PTSD.
The curriculum was developed in 2007 by Linda Kohanov, Eponaquest ™ Worldwide founder, and Terry Murray, a veteran of Naval Intelligence and Eponaquest Instructor.
Bob Lecy and his Partner in Healing, Max
Bob served in the army from 1966 to 1970. He was a Medic with the 4th Infantry Division, from October, '68 to October, '69, in what was called the Central Highlands of South Vietnam. He did Basic Medics Training in Fort Ord, CA and advanced medical training at The Presidio of San Francisco.
The Vietnam War was perceived very differently by our culture, in contrast to WWII. The objectives were never clear, but were vaguely about fighting Communism in the ‘cold war’ era.
“Laos is the most bombed country in the history of the world and we were not supposed to even be bombing Laos. Pilots were just dropping bombs,” Bob shared. “58,000 Americans died in Vietnam and 2.5 to 3,000,000 Southeast Asians were killed with an estimated 70% being civilians. The war strategy was one of attrition, not a strategy to win.” Bob feels that there are many reasons why veterans feel disconnected when they return from their service. They can’t trust their government; they feel no connection with the society that they left; and they feel that people don’t have a clue about what’s really important, or understand what they have been through. People would often say, “Tell me about your experiences in Vietnam.” As soon as he started sharing they would emotionally withdraw and stop listening.
The military uses repetition. They promote looking at others as less than you, so that killing becomes a non-issue. Overcoming a natural resistance to killing becomes easier. You become immune. You react without thinking. You learn hatred and bigotry. Killing becomes the solution to the problem. Sadly, there is no un-training once a veteran leaves the military.
PTSD isolates people. Many veterans live in dark and/or isolated locations like basements. They are noise sensitive. They experience sensory overload, and can become overwhelmed in crowds or in social situations.
When asked why he thought horses help heal PTSD, Bob replied, “There are a lot of pieces to it: horses are prey animals. Trauma makes us feel like prey. There’s the hyper vigilance and the feeling of being betrayed. We have trouble trusting and that makes us act like and feel like prey, so we have a kinship with horses. Horses don’t care about your past. They want to know if you are a safe person right now. You don’t have to go back into your story to be with the horse. Are you safe? That’s all the horse wants to know. They want to trust, and if they do, then let’s hang out.”
Bob used alcohol to self medicate but stopped drinking in his mid-40’s. It would take another 16 years for him to find help to address PTSD. After his military service, Bob lived in Tacoma, WA and studied American History. He worked for the State of Washington as a Regional Director for Emergency Medical Services, helping communities to establish pre-hospital emergency care systems.
Looking into the eye of a horse and meeting its spirit there, Bob also found himself - the part that is whole and untraumatized. "Horses have been the most effective “treatment” in regaining trust in relationships with another being and feeling connected," Bob shares. "They are both powerful and very vulnerable. Not unlike veterans."
I expect I'll be engaged in healing trauma in myself and others, for the rest of my life. When I look back and see how much of my potential was arrested due to childhood abuse, I marvel at how far I've been able to come with the burden of damage that I've carried. I want to have a healing center/ horse ranch someday and have sketched out some ideas for it here. I continue to evolve this long-held dream. I want a place where people can come and stay while working through the hardest parts of trauma therapy. They will be surrounded by those who understand trauma and the behaviors inherent in PTSD. There will be organic gardening and other enterprises that people can contribute toward. The compound will be as self-sustaining as possible. Communal meals and living spaces, as well as private areas for anyone who wants or needs to be alone will be available. Horses will be a big part of the therapy offerings, as well as body work, acupuncture, and any other modalities that can help people feel supported and comforted as they move through the hard work of healing trauma.
I visited John Nash, a Vietnam Veteran in Castlerock, CO in the Spring of 2015. John works with combat veterans. John Nash's Website