YELM, Wash. – After six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Aaron Heliker’s luck ran out.
A roadside bomb left him with third-degree burns, a traumatic brain injury and nerve damage to one leg. But the unseen wounds became the most disabling of all.
The 27-year-old who rode motorcycles, was a whiz at auto-body work and had wanted to be a soldier since he was old enough to ask his mother to “buy some army pants” could no longer tolerate being around people.
He was anxious, hypervigilant, expecting attack. Memories rushed in of his last tour in Afghanistan, the five-hour attack by insurgents his convoy fended off, the soldier he found bleeding to death but was unable to help.
To block out the memories and the surges of anxiety that made him feel always ready for battle, he began to drink. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and sent to a lockdown mental health facility for veterans.
Faced with overwhelming physical pain, afraid of being close to anyone and so mired in despair that he could see no hopeful future, Heliker didn’t want to continue living.
Then he met Fred.
A white Frederiksborg gelding, Fred is one of the horses in Debbi Fisher’s Rainier Therapeutic Riding program in Yelm, where service members are matched with horses they learn to groom and eventually ride.
“I really liked him, so I postponed my death for a week,” Heliker said. “In an office I feel cornered, but out here (at the farm) I feel at peace.”
Horses are ideal partners for traumatized service members because “they’re kindred spirits,” Fisher said, and have similar fight-or-flight reactions to perceived threats.
Training a horse not to jump away from a blowing piece of paper, for example, becomes a model for the soldier’s own life. Fisher takes 75 soldiers a year – both active-duty and veterans – without cost to them or the government.
Equine-assisted therapy has become well known across the country for helping with rehabilitation. Texas’ Horses for Heroes started in 2007, and nationwide a number of groups, including Fisher’s, have followed its model.
Fisher, 53, has spent 40 years riding and training horses. After her first husband, an Air Force pilot, died in a car crash in 2006, she felt lost.
Seeking a purpose, she knew there was a need for helping soldiers with physical and emotional difficulties. She had heard of the Horses for Heroes program, and the idea took off after she married Bob Woelk, who became the co-founder.
Getting warriors out of their ‘bunkers’
The program was just what Heliker needed. Nothing else had worked, he said: not treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center outside Washington, D.C.; not therapy at a clinic in Texas; not the lockdown PTSD treatment facility in Oregon; not even his beloved service dog, Chopper, his companion to help with anxiety.
Fred’s ability to mirror Heliker’s own emotional state, requiring him to calm himself in order to do as little as brush Fred, has made it possible for Heliker to get used to staying in control.
Not long after meeting Fred last June, Heliker canceled his plans to die, and over the course of nine months he went from taking 42 pills a day to four.
Dr. Murray Raskind, a psychiatrist at the Veterans Affairs Puget Sound Health Care System in Seattle, says programs that get service members exercising and out among people are excellent.
“All of those things are good,” he said. “Physical exercise relieves depression, anxiety and stress. It gets people out of their isolated state from being in their ‘bunkers’ … and gets them interacting with other human beings and (in the case of the riding class) connecting with an animal. Many people feel more comfortable around animals.”
But, Raskind said, it’s not a substitute for conventional therapy.
Fisher started her program in 2010, the same year Madigan Army Medical Center closed its PTSD program, and when 18,000 service members were returning to Joint Base Lewis-McChord from Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soldiers are referred to Fisher’s program by the Warrior Transition Battalion at the joint base. Other recreation programs are offered as well, but the riding program is among the most popular.
Healing takes long-term process
At Rainier, each rider starts slowly by learning to groom the horse, lead it and eventually ride.
Sessions last eight weeks and run four times a year. Participants can repeat sessions and remain in the program as long as they want. Ninety percent are active-duty soldiers, and the rest are veterans. Some stay on as volunteers, including Heliker.
“Through this equine-therapy program, I’ve seen soldiers building relationships, confidence and their self-esteem,” said Phyllis Lang, an occupational therapist with the Warrior Transition Battalion.
Fisher donates the use of her eight horses and operates in donated arenas. She said the program costs $700 per rider, which she raises through donations.
Two times a week, Fisher arrives with a caravan of horse trailers. Heliker and other volunteers help unload horses, saddle them and lead them into the arena with a class of waiting service members – many of whom have faced the worst of war but are now uncertain about the 1,200- to 2,000-pound animal before them.
Heliker, who has spent nine years in the Air Force, stays in a camper on base. Living in a barracks is uncomfortable right now because he feels safest when he’s alone or with a few trusted people.
While he continues to take part in therapy through the Wounded Warrior Battalion, he volunteers much of the week – mucking stalls, feeding horses and helping other service members. On Wednesdays, he rides with the advanced class.
Heliker began building a relationship with Fred when he realized the horse needed to trust him or the animal wouldn’t cooperate. On days when Heliker was angry, Fred reflected it. Heliker had to calm himself down to get the horse to work with him or face spending the afternoon chasing Fred around a field.
Gradually, Heliker grew calmer all day long.
“When I’m around the horse, he reminds me of a giant puppy dog,” Heliker said. “You can hug him. You can talk to him. … It’s just relaxing. There’s no pressure, just you and your best friend.”
Even though he’s sad his military career is ending – he expects to be discharged soon – he’s beginning to think of new possibilities, such as training to become a farrier. For the first time in a long time, he’s thinking of the future, and of the horses that will be in it.