In November of 2009 I sat and talked with twenty seven year old U.S. Marine Sergeant Cody Martin. He told me that when the war with Iraq began he was shipped to the Persian Gulf. His job was transporting supplies from Kuwait to Fallujah in a MTVR (medium tactical vehicle replacement).
Two AAVs—amphibious assault vehicles—were his only protection. One drove in front of his truck, the other directly behind. It was a ten-mile drive from Fallujah to FOB (forward operating base) Cheyenne through small villages, with local merchants and families waking up, leaving their homes, and walking down the road to start the day.
The hypervigilance was always the same. His mind raced, his heart pounded, and his whole body was infused with adrenaline. He could see the Iraqi people through his windshield. They looked so gentle, so right at home. But in his head he kept hearing the voice of his base commander shouting at him and his buddies:
“Never stop your vehicle! Never stop it for anything or anybody. They look like innocent women and children, but some are not. They will hurt you, they will kill you, whatever they say, do not believe them, do not trust them.”
As he drove into the next village, he spotted a little red car parked on the side of the road. A man got out, opened the trunk, pulled out some wires, and twisted them in his hands. The next second, the car exploded. Cody hit the gas, but through the smoke he could see the man’s decapitated head lying on the road.
The marines were told that all local people had been instructed multiple times by the American military to immediately get off the road whenever any U.S. vehicles drove by. Some did, some didn’t. For a moment, Cody thought how back home he would simply stop to let someone cross the street in front of his car. Now anyone he saw looked like a suicide bomber; anything he saw looked like it could be an IED, an improvised explosive device.
After the explosion, Cody drove fast and never stopped. He said he didn’t know how many bodies he hit—men, women, kids, animals. When all the vehicles got to FOB Cheyenne, it was hideous. There were guts, body parts, and blood from the people he hit covering the front of his truck. He said some of the guys laughed and took pictures of it. Cody felt nothing. He told me, “Marines are trained not to ever show feelings.”
Six months later, Cody returned to the U.S. He said:
“I hated myself for so many things I had done. When I got home, even if a dog looked at me I felt like he didn’t trust me. I know that’s dumb. Maybe it wasn’t them but me. I didn’t trust anyone. I fell apart emotionally: I started crying, shaking, and hyperventilating. I knew I would never trust anybody again.”
I told my wife Debbie I felt suicidal. She said I should get counseling. I told her I didn’t want anyone to know. If anybody found out, they’d never hire me. I also didn’t want to tell anyone what I had done and seen, especially a therapist or someone who hadn’t been in the military.”
But in every job interview, when Cody was asked if he had PTSD, he always told the truth. He was out of work for two years. He said that to save his marriage, he finally agreed to see a therapist. He was immediately put on prescription medication. He said:
“It was the same stuff they gave out after Vietnam,” he said. “It took me to nowhere. It zeroed my mind out.”
Cody hated how the drugs made him feel, and he slowly began to wean himself off all of them. A year later, he still had problems with anger and anxiety. Cody’s wife told him that one of her friends had said that he might be able to get help from a new special veterans’ organization. That afternoon Cody called the Wounded Warrior Project (WWP). Years had now passed since he had come home from the war.
Cody spoke with the people at WWP. He told them of his years of PTSD agony, what he had done to try to find relief, and how nothing had helped. WWP sent him a packet of information on equine therapy and a pamphlet from Hearts and Horses Therapeutic Riding Center in Loveland Colorado. http://www.heartsandhorses.org/ Cody had never been on a horse didn’t know anything about the animal, but he said, “I had nothing to lose.”
Cody was given a horse named Dusty to partner with. He said:
“They had me start on the ground and learn how to lead him around. He seemed anxious when I was with him. Sometimes when we’d finish walking, I’d just stand and look at his eyes. They seemed so soft. I felt like he was thinking, ‘This guy isn’t so bad.’ All I really wanted to do was breathe with him, y’know, hold him around his neck so I could feel him breathing and then do it with him, together.”
It wasn’t always smooth going, though. Cody recalled, “One time I asked Claire, one of the therapists, why she thought Dusty always seemed anxious. He’d often pin his ears back or be nippy; it seemed like he didn’t trust me. She asked me if I was anxious, and I said, ‘Are you kidding? How about all the time.’ Claire said maybe I was making Dusty anxious. That made me feel horrible. I remembered all the dogs I had killed with my truck. I started to cry. I thought, ‘God, I don’t want to do that. He’s so good, he never hurt anything.’
“Claire said if I would keep breathing together with Dusty and try to relax more, it might help him to feel safer and more trusting. I did everything Claire said. It took me about a month, but it was amazing. I couldn’t believe how much more gentle and quiet he became. But what was really unbelievable was that everyone who knew me said I was very different, y’know, more laid-back.
“Drugs don’t help you trust another person. I use to have to take drugs to go to the movies with my wife. Now I take nothing, and this year Debbie and I went to Costa Rica. Can you believe because of a horse I can go to another country and not fall apart?
“I’ve been riding and hanging out with Dusty for about a year. I feel a sense of accomplishment—my health is definitely not in the clear, but it’s in my rear view. What’s really incredible is my trust. When I came home, I couldn’t trust anybody or anything. Dusty got some of it back for me. It’s like he brought me home.”
Thousands of men and women like Cody have selflessly traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan, where they confronted death and horror on a daily basis. They survived unimaginable acts of war only to come home to a life of emotional trauma, broken relationships, paralyzing depression, and hopelessness. Prescription drugs and traditional talk therapy have repeatedly failed to break through to the psychic wounds of post-traumatic stress disorder.
As of 2015 there were between 300,000 and 400,000 veterans in the United States suffering from PTSD. The suicide rate for these young men and women averaged one per day, or 20 percent of all U.S. suicides. The cost of treating war veterans with traditional talk therapy and prescription drugs has grown, with spending to date of more than $2 billion of taxpayer funds. In 2011, The New York Times reported that widely prescribed drugs for treating veterans with PTSD were not only ineffective but caused serious negative side effects.
Today there are many equine programs available to the thousands of veterans who suffer from the devastating wounds of war and specifically PTSD. The Wounded Warrior Project: http://www.woundedwarriorproject.org/ working in conjunction with PATH Intl. Equine Services for Heroes: http://www.pathintl.org/ is a nonprofit veterans’ service organization that offers a variety of programs, services, for veterans of all military actions that followed the events of September 11, 2001. Their methods are often faster, cheaper, and more effective than many of the more traditional procedures and medications. Thousands of lives could be helped, maybe even saved, if only there was more awareness of and support and resources for the many equine therapy programs available to our veterans who suffer from so many devastating emotional wounds. © Tim Hayes 2015
This story is adapted from my new book RIDING HOME: The Power of Horses to Heal and appears in Chapter 6 ~”The Walking Wounded ~ Horses For Heroes.” It is this amazing power of horses to heal and teach us about ourselves that is accessible to everyone and found in the pages this book.
To learn more about the book please visit: http://www.ridinghome.com/. Every book ordered will benefit Veterans with PTSD, Children with Autism and Children of Families in Need. For articles, blogs and to contact Tim Hayes go to: http://www.hayesisforhorses.com/