One of our regular volunteer veterans sends us a message. He is just off to the Warrior Games, held this year at West Point in America. ‘I’m doing cycling, shot and discus,’ he writes. This is from a gentleman whose crashing Post-Traumatic Stress once produced in him so much rage and denial that he felt he had lost his very sense of self.
He has spoken eloquently and elegantly about his HorseBack story. When he first came to us, he was uncertain of everything, especially what to do with all the fury that had built inside him. (Devastating anger is a classic symptom of Post-Traumatic stress.) He said that he was not convinced about coming to us at all. ‘The problem with ex-soldiers is that we see asking for help as a weakness.’ He had been through counselling, but not found the understanding he needed: ‘They don’t know what it’s like to wake up and think – will I die today?’ At HorseBack, he discovered that everybody spoke his language. He found a place where, as he describes it, the mantra is: ‘We’ll help you if you help yourself, and if you fall we’ll catch you.’
Now, he is training to be a counsellor himself. He was so inspired by his HorseBack journey – a journey he says he never wants to end – that he was moved to give something back to those wounded veterans who are facing the daily battles he knows so well. He progressed through the courses, and then came back to volunteer as an official mentor, something he does supremely well. He says that the work he does here ‘gives me that sense of purpose, so I know I’m not finished. It showed me how to move on, and now I’m pursing a vocation I never dreamed I would do.’
The distance he has come is astonishing. When he first arrived, he recalls that he had isolated himself completely from the world. ‘People would say, oh you look fine. I said: you would not want to live in my head. I said: sometimes I don’t want to live in my head.’ Now he is at the heart of the organisation, an integral part of the HorseBack family. Working with the horses, he says, taught him to relax, to trust again, to relearn confidence in himself. Working with the people gave him the vital sense of being part of a team, something many of our veterans talk about. ‘We get social skills back, which we had lost. You can cook, you can talk, you muck in. And that boosts your self-esteem. I’m part of a team again. Suddenly, I am valued again.’
As he tells this story, a great tale of moving from hopelessness to hope, from isolation to a sense of mission, he smiles, almost in disbelief. ‘My inner strength is coming back,’ he says. ‘Now I’m a mentor, I’m giving something back. I know the people who are going through what I’ve gone through. They’re looking but they are not seeing. PTSD means there is no spark in their eyes. I recognise that. I can help them.’
He looks up, into the bright Scottish air. ‘I’m something like the person I used to be,’ he says.