PTSD Stricken Soldiers in Yelm Say Horses Save Lives
Moises Lozacruz is an Army reservist who did two tours in Iraq as a combat commander. He was 22 years old when he touched down in Iraq for the first time in 2006.
“We arrive there, I want to say, at 3:22 in the morning. By 2 o’clock I was already on mission. By 8 p.m. that same day I had already killed somebody. You know, so I was like, what the hell. This is a big deal, you know, I didn’t know how to react to it.”
He quickly moved up the military ranks and found himself working around the clock in a war zone.
“When we did come back, it was only to refuel, restock on MREs and food, and go right back out. So I would get about eight to ten hours to do everything. That was supposed to be my rest time and I couldn’t rest because I was having all these nightmares. Every time I closed my eyes I would see the dead people, whether they be the ones we lost or the ones I killed. I was like, how am I going to keep going? I can’t even sleep. I can’t rest. How am I going to be an effective combat leader?”
He says he was diagnosed with PTSD in 2007.
“I went to the clinic over there and, sure enough, the only thing they did was give me sleeping pills. They were like, ‘Yeah, we think you have PTSD and here’s some Ambien.’ I was able to sleep again. The nightmares kind of stayed there, the flashbacks stayed there. We were there for 15 months. I ran over 130 missions and came back.”
Moises was eager to get back to normal life.
“I figured, oh everything is going to go back to normal. But my body didn’t feel like that – it felt like I was always on alert. I was doing a lot of stupid things to get that rush back. Killing people is, like, the worst thing you can feel, but it also gives you a certain adrenaline rush too. I started drinking a lot and looking for bar fights. If one person wasn’t enough, I’d look for fights with multiple people. It was just a lot of destructive behavior.”
Moises knew he needed help when he woke up in a jail cell, completely unaware that he had crashed his truck and gotten a DUI.
“So I went back and tried to get help again and, sure enough, what they did was throw medication at me. ‘Here you go. We think you have PTSD, here’s some more medication.’ Or if they wanted to talk about it, it would be some young kid straight out of college asking me to tell him about my experience. And they would say, ‘Oh, I know what you’re feeling.’ And I would just storm out of there. ‘Do you? Do you know what I’m feeling? Have you lost a friend? Have you had to kill somebody? Do you wake up in the middle of the night screaming and sometimes you know what it’s for and sometimes you just don’t know what you’re dreaming, but you’re soaked in sweat and your heart is pounding?'”
Moises was at the Veterans Affairs office when he learned about Rainier Theraputic Riding, a non profit program in Yelm that uses horse back riding to help active duty and veteran soldiers with PTSD. The program is completely free and soldiers can come for as long as they’d like. I asked Moises if he had ever ridden a horse before.
“No, I rode a camel before!”
Executive director Elisia Mutter says the horses are natural therapists.
“The horses themselves are able to understand what it feels like to have PTSD because that’s how horses live. They’re always hyper-vigilant, they’re always anxious of their surroundings and they’re slow to relax and slow to trust,” says Mutter. “So I think for someone with PTSD, coming in and first having a horse that understands and doesn’t judge and doesn’t talk back and can’t tell your secrets, is really the first piece to it.”
Then the riders are able to identify their emotions through the horses.
“A lot of times the people that we work with aren’t ready to address their own emotions. So if I were, as an instructor, to say, ‘You look angry,’ they would probably completely put up a wall and not want to talk to me. That’s too much,” says Elisia. “But if I were to come up and say, ‘Your horse looks frustrated.’ or ‘Tell me why your horse is wiggling around instead of standing quietly.’ They can start to figure that out. We can do different exercises, asking them to take a few deep breaths to help let their horse relax. We can address the things that are happening in their body through asking them to help their horse.”
One very important component is that the staff is trained not to ask the soldiers any questions. So before my interview with Moises, none of the staff knew his story.
“My wife and I are both the same way. She’s also a veteran. It’s very hard for us to trust people. We’ve been here for a little bit over a year and we have very few friends. For me, the majority [are] here. When I came here it was like instant friendship. They weren’t asking me questions or ‘What did you go through?’ or ‘Why are you here?’ It was just like, ‘You’re a soldier veteran? You’re welcome here anytime.'”
Moises says he’s slowly becoming whole again, and that’s why Elisia, and the rest of the staff, are so passionate about the program.
“You know, we’re losing, on average, 22 service members a day to suicide. That is just absolutely unacceptable. If one of our horses in the arena can help to change that. A lot of these guys they tell us, flat out, ‘I was planning on killing myself and this horse made the difference between me doing that or not. This horse saved my life.’ We hear that all the time.”
Moises has become close with a horse name Fred.
“It’s working for me and I can’t say that I don’t have the nightmares or the flashbacks or anything else anymore. But I know that they’re happening a lot less. In the past, people have not felt safe around me and that needed to change. That’s not a way to live.”
Click here to connect with Rainier Therapeutic Riding in Yelm. All active duty and veteran service members are eligible. The program is run completely by volunteers, so they’re always looking for help, as well as a permanent indoor riding center to call their own.