The holiday season is upon us, and for most of us that means good food, good friends and maybe traveling to be with relatives.
It may also mean turning on the radio to hear Christmas carols or watching favorite Christmas movies. I cannot imagine a holiday season without watching Will Ferrel's Elf, A Christmas Story, Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer or, of course, Jimmy Stewart in It's a Wonderful Life. One scene in particular always stands out for me in It's a Wonderful Life. It's the homecoming scene when all of the town's people come to bail out George Bailey and his brother makes a surprise visit in a military uniform looking more like he is back from a lovely vacation than from the horrors of World War II.
Maybe a reality check is in order here. I know, I know, it's a movie that is a classic because of the happy ending and I enjoy it every time I watch it. But Hollywood aside for a minute, it's important to remember that so many men and women returning from war do not have such a happy homecoming. We are only beginning to guess how the experience of war changes a person. President Obama has stated that he is committed to scaling back U.S. involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he is working to bringing home as many soldiers as possible.
From all accounts it sounds like this is moving forward, and soon many vets will be coming home after multiple tours of duty. According to a pretty shocking article I read about the returning veterans, more than half will need medical and or mental health attention. More than half! Many will be missing limbs or have traumatic brain injuries. Many will not be able to assimilate back into civilian life and may be diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The point is, now more than ever we will all have to do what we can to help our vets when they come home. We will need innovative ways to heal from the hell they have been through.
Equine Assisted Psychotherapy is one possible path to healing. The horse is an animal of prey and is always vigilantly looking out for danger — much like someone suffering from PTSD. If you watch a herd of horses in a field you will notice that they are in tune with each others movements in the pasture. The horse also has an automatic startle response to most new things. I am reminded of this every time a grocery bag blows across the field or a tractor starts up unexpectedly. The response of the horse is run or bolt now and ask questions later. People who have suffered great trauma relate to this. Horses are also very loyal to humans and respond immediately to kindness. Feed a horse a carrot, groom out his coat or clean his hooves and he is your best friend.
In working with veterans and horses I would do most of the work on the ground and save the riding part for the very end. There are plenty of learning opportunities in building a relationship. It takes a lot of trust for a horse to let you lift his leg and clean out his hooves. In effect he is saying, "I will let you take away one of my escape mechanisms." Leading a horse also requires trust and being in touch with non-verbal language. Horses have an uncanny way of letting humans know when their emotions and their actions are not in sync. For example, if a person is feeling very sad or depressed, but puts on a false face of happiness, the horse will be confused by the discrepancy. More than likely the horse will respond to the depressed emotions by being slow to respond to commands or lethargic in his actions.
We all have an obligation to welcome these vets back and to help out in any way we can. Whether that means providing rides to the doctors appointments, making a cash donation to the VA, volunteering to help homeless veterans or just asking a vet family what it is you can do to help. Maybe one of the most important things we can do is help them remember who they were before the war.