Miami-Dade County

Relieving veterans’ PTSD through horses, water — even yoga

Diego H. Hurtado, a retired Army paratrooper and veteran of several military actions including Grenada and Desert Shield, plays with his service dog Rex in his home in Miami. Hurtado receives help from Rex with the physical and psychological injuries he suffered during his service.
Diego H. Hurtado, a retired Army paratrooper and veteran of several military actions including Grenada and Desert Shield, plays with his service dog Rex in his home in Miami. Hurtado receives help from Rex with the physical and psychological injuries he suffered during his service. FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

For a while, retired U.S. Army paratrooper Diego Hurtado lived with the chaos — the sleeplessness, the hyper-vigilance, the isolation. He lived with bouts of anxiety and depression, chalking it up to the post-war life.

Finally, he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and turned to anti-anxiety and anti-depression medication. Then he discovered scuba diving.

“Twenty years, 30 days, 12 hours and 36 minutes — that was my time of service. When I took off my uniform for the last time, that’s when a lot of my emotional issues started. I lived with it for a while because I didn’t recognize what it was,’’ says Hurtado, a disabled vet with knee, back and ankle injuries from 14 years of jumps. “Years later, I started diving with this organization and so much changed. The water diffused me; I felt like I was a world away in the perfect quiet.”

In that moment of calm, Hurtado, 53, became one of the thousands of veterans with PTSD who’ve embraced recreational therapies to help relieve their symptoms, while still taking their medication. Such activities include boating, kayaking, diving, horseback riding, playing with dolphins, even yoga. They all pull from the same property: the ability to calm the inner storm and to help ease the transition back to civilian life.

The numbers are only expected to rise as more soldiers return from Iraq and Afghanistan strapped with PTSD symptoms. Up to 20 percent of veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“The recreational therapies are a complement to their medications, helping them to find a different kind of fulfillment,’’ said Tabitha Aragon, a recreational therapist at Miami VA Healthcare System. “Some of our vets are not able to work, so they have free time, which can lead to over-thinking, which can lead to depression.’’

Aragon works with about 100 vets, who mostly served in Iraq and Afghanistan and suffer from PTSD or traumatic brain injury. She refers them to several recreational therapies in South Florida, including Bit by Bit in Davie and Veterans Ocean Adventures, where Hurtado first learned to scuba dive.

“They are struggling with relationships and not sleeping and it’s often hard for them to explain how they are feeling. Sometimes the challenge is just to get them out the house,” Aragon said.

Five years ago, Island Dolphin Care in Key Largo created a therapeutic experience for those wounded while serving in the military. The program, which draws veterans from across the country, allows them to play with the dolphins in a safe environment. This year, the program has served more than 300 veterans for free.

Others have found healing through yoga and meditation. Connected Warriors, a nonprofit organization launched in 2010, teaches yoga to service members, veterans and families at 18 studios and VA hospitals in Florida. Nationally, the program serves about 1,100 per month.

When veteran Donna Hite mounts a horse, nothing else exists — not the aching back that she injured playing softball; not the missiles flying overhead while she was in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm; and not the countless stories she has heard from fellow veterans shaken by different wars.

For Hite, Bit by Bit Therapy’s Horses for Heroes program for veterans helped heal her both physically and emotionally. It whisked her back to her Ohio childhood, growing up on a dairy farm. “It’s hard not to be happy when you are around a horse,” she said one rainy afternoon as she brushed Prince.

Hite, 50, who served in the Army seven years came to Bit by Bit Therapy after a co-worker at the Veterans Administration recommended it about three years ago. The riding center also offers therapy programs for children and adults with special needs and has locations in Pompano Beach and Davie.

Susan March, the medical director, said the recreation program, which started about five years ago, has helped treat dozens of veterans over the years. Veterans are treated for free.

“It starts off as a recreational activity, but it’s also therapy in a way,” she said. “It’s a safe calming place for them.”

With a fleet of six horses, the program has worked with amputees, PTSD sufferers and those with spinal cord injuries.

“There is something about horses that bring them out of their shell,” March said.

Kaye Marks, of PATH International Centers, which consists of more than 800 centers globally offering equine-assisted therapy, said about 3,000 veterans have been treated at about 200 centers, including Good Hope Equestrian Training Center in the Redland. Since 2010, Good Hope’s Horses Helping Heroes program has helped about 300 of veterans with PTSD, brain injuries, amputations and spinal cord injuries.

“As more soldiers are returning from conflicts, we are seeing a higher demand for equine-assisted therapy,” said Marks, PATH’s director of communications and marketing. She said the group received a $100,000 grant from the Veterans Administration to bolster the programs.

Retired U.S. Army Lt. Col. Branson Rector, the founder of Veterans Ocean Adventures, also sees the need. Months after he retired after a 21-year-Army career, he launched the scuba diving, kayaking and sunset sailing program in 2009.

“We want to keep our veterans busy and provide activities that will help draw them out,’’ said Rector, who now works at Southern Command. “They can be dealing with isolation and turn to drugs or alcohol.’’

Hurtado’s PTSD stemmed from deployment to Grenada and Saudi Arabia. After being released from his civilian job more than a year ago, he contemplated suicide. The depression made him a hostage in his own home. As part of Ocean Adventure, he went couple sailing with his wife and began scuba diving two years ago. He went on to become certified as a dive buddy. Now he works with vets and other disabled divers.

“My life was turned upside down,’’ said Hurtado, who also has a service dog to help with his balance. “The water and the quiet helped me to feel peace.”

Veterans Day Activities

Veterans Day Celebration in Coconut Grove: A tribute to all veterans with guest speaker Anthony Armbrister, LTC, U.S. Marines (Retired), from 10 a.m.-noon Nov. 11 at the Coconut Grove Historical Cemetery, corner of Charles Avenue and Douglas Road. Refreshments will be served at the Historic Christ Episcopal Church in Gibson Hall, 3482 Hibiscus St. Call 305-447-8680.

Veterans Day Celebration in Coral Gables: The Consul General of France in Miami, Philippe Létrilliart, in partnership with the University of Miami, will award the insignias of “Chevalier dans l’Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur” (Knight in the National Order of the Legion of Honor”) to three U.S. veterans who fought alongside France during World War II. The ceremony takes place at 11 a.m. Nov. 11 at the University of Miami, 1306 Stanford Dr., Coral Gables. Call 305-403-4180 or 305-403-4157.

Doral Veterans Day Parade and Ceremony: The parade begins at 10 a.m. in the parking lot of Tony Roma’s restaurant at Northwest 33rd Street and 87th Avenue, and ends at Veterans Park at 10190 NW 33rd St., where a ceremony featuring key speakers takes place. You can purchase a memorial brick for a veteran. For information, email Jessica.Roth@cityofdoral.com or call 305-593-6611.

Miami Beach Celebrates Veterans Day: Annual parade along Washington Avenue at 11:11 a.m. from 11th to 17th streets Nov. 11. The route then turns toward Flamingo Park Baseball Stadium, 11th Street and Jefferson Avenue. A high-flying, all-veterans parachute team will land at Flamingo Park for a wreath-laying ceremony. A free picnic follows. Call 305-673-7575 or visit www.miamibeachfl.gov.

North Miami Veterans Day Ceremony: The city honors all who have served honorably in the United States Armed Forces. Event includes posting of colors by local veterans organizations and presentations by the North Miami Police Department Honor Guard and Rifle Team; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Griffing Park, 12215 W. Dixie Hwy., North Miami. Free. 305-895-9840, www.northmiamifl.gov/celebrate.

Pinecrest Veterans Day Ceremony: To celebrate the lives of brave military personnel, members of the Pinecrest Youth Advisory Council interview a panel of veterans while developing an oral history of their lives. In Also includes presentations by Pinecrest Police Honor Guard and Miamians Barbershop Chorus; 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Nov. 11; Veterans Wayside Park, 11111 Pinecrest Pkwy., Pinecrest. Call 305-284-0900.

Surfside Veterans Day Ceremony: The event includes a presentation of colors, local Scout troops, guest speakers, and Mayor Daniel Dietch who will serve as master of ceremonies. Light refreshments will be served; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Veterans Park, 8791 Collins Ave., Surfside. 305-866-3635 or www.townofsurfsidefl.gov.

Veterans Day at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens: Free admission is offered to the nation’s veterans and active duty military personnel, including National Guard and Reserve, through May 24, 2015. .

Wilton Manors Veterans Day Ceremony: Honors the members of the five branches of the U.S. Armed Forces: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy; 11 a.m. Nov. 11; Hagen Park, 2020 Wilton Dr., Wilton Manors. Free. 954-390-2100, www.wiltonmanors.com.

Myth and Machine: The First World War in Visual Culture: A collection of rare artwork and items that explore how artists, designers and filmmakers confronted the birth of industrialized mass warfare. The exhibit, which marks the centenary of WWI, also aligns with the design museum’s 19th anniversary; 6-8 p.m. Nov. 11; The Wolfsonian – FIU, 1001 Washington Ave., Miami Beach. $7 adults, $5 seniors, students, and children age 6–12; free for Wolfsonian members, State University System of Florida staff and students with ID, and children under 6. 305-531-1001, www.wolfsonian.org.

Veterans Day Event: Say “Thank you” to all veterans by participating in patriotic crafts and writing thank you notes for veterans; 10 a.m. Nov. 11; Miami Children’s Museum, 980 MacArthur Cswy., Miami. 305-373-5437, www.miamichildrensmuseum.org/.

Veterans Day Mini-Camp: Keep the sea free of debris in this fun and educational marine science mini camp. Spend the day with a naturalist guide and learn all about marine debris, ocean gyres, how plastics affect sea life, and how to help protect the oceans; 9 a.m.-3 p.m. Nov. 11; Biscayne Nature Center, 6767 Crandon Blvd., Key Biscayne. $18 per person. Space is limited. Register at 305-361-6767, ext. 119 or email at reservations@biscaynenaturecenter.org.

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