When you’re a disabled veteran, you have lost everything, said U.S. Army staff sergeant Aaron Heliker.
Heliker told his story in the 2014 award-winning documentary Riding My Way Back – an emotional film that Hoofbeats has screened multiple times for our volunteers and supporters.
Heliker was only 19-years-old when he hugged his mother good-bye for his first deployment in active combat zone. He served several tours of duty and returned home with a head injury and severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
At Walter Reed Medical Center, he received treatment — in the form of 42 suppressive pills a day, said his mother with tears of anger and sadness rolling down her face. She said she looked into her son’s eyes and saw that they were dead.
Disabled veterans feel alone and useless, said Heliker. “When we’re deployed, we fit in, we have a purpose,” he explained. But when warriors come home, their purpose is gone and it is easy to get lost in a haze of medication and discouragement, according to this disabled vet. At his lowest point, Heliker said he wrote a suicide letter and prepared to end his life.
With that letter still stored in his belongings, Heliker began visiting a therapeutic riding center — where he met a horse named Fred, who changed his life.
“The horses can do it. The horses are the therapists,” said one of the instructors. Horses are prey animals and herd animals, so they sense and reflect emotion, she said.
If there was a day that he did not show up, Heliker said that this instructor would call him, claiming she needed help with something or she could not get Fred — a mischievous gray gelding with the reputation of the barn clown — to listen to her. Trudging out to the barn almost every day, Heliker spent hours training or quietly brushing or sitting with Fred.
One day, Heliker approached one of the instructors and handed her an envelope, saying he wanted her to keep it. It was a suicide note. With tears streaming down her face, she recounted how Aaron had said he did not need it anymore — because he had Fred.
Since then, Heliker said he has found his purpose helping other disabled veterans find peace through horses. He and Fred work now work at the same riding center, connecting fellow warriors with strong and mighty horses who can listen, understand, and partner with these returning heroes. “I have a mission here at home and I’m going to follow through,” Heliker said.
Over 2.5 million veterans have come home since 9/11.
Many of them are coming home to Rockbridge and the surrounding counties. As compared with other cities and states, our area has a disproportionately high percentage of brave citizens who serve in the armed forces. Hoofbeats is a registered equestrian center with the Wounded Warriors program and our horses have had the opportunity to partner with a few of these veterans.
Hoofbeats director Carol Branscome said that Riding My Way Back accurately portrays the healing power of horses, but it is not just veterans who need to find peace and a renewed purpose. Struck by the scene of Heliker’s mother talking about dead eyes, Branscome said she has seen the same dead eyes in a troubled 12-year-old boy, in a woman suffering domestic abuse, and in so many others who walk through Hoofbeats’ doors. Just as Heliker explained about disabled veterans, all people need a purpose and a mission, Branscome said. That is key to finding peace.
Find more details about this incredible documentary, Riding My Way Back, and discover how horses are helping disabled veterans at http://www.ridingmywayback.com/#welcome
By Beth Jinae Kennedy