PLAINFIELD, Ind. | Doug McLaughlin wasn't hoping to die. Neither was he particularly interested in avoiding it when he bought his motorcycle in 1998.
"Maybe I had a death wish," he said. "I just didn't care."
Speed and desperation proved a near-fatal cocktail. He lost control and hit a car head-on. The bike was totaled. McLaughlin was lucky; he spent four days in the hospital.
What he didn't know then was that he needed a horse, not a motorcycle.
McLaughlin, like a number of Indiana veterans with issues stemming from their military service, is working with horses and learning life skills from them. He is enrolled at Strides to Success, a Plainfield farm accredited by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International. Strides is one of more than 850 PATH centers worldwide, but it has achieved "premier accreditation" by maintaining the association's highest standards, according to The Indianapolis Star.
Veterans — and civilian clients with problems ranging from attention deficit disorder to emotional/behavioral issues, abuse, autism and learning impairment — partner with horses. They learn lessons in trust, respect, communication, cooperation and leadership, said Debbie Anderson, Strides' founder and executive director and a PATH-certified instructor assisted by recreational therapist Blair McKissock.
"They make you face your fears," said Nick Bennett, of Franklin, who suffered crippling and near-fatal injuries during a rocket attack while serving as a Marine in Iraq in 2004. "You meet yourself in your horse. He just seems to sense what's needed."
Horses are herd animals, Anderson said. As such, they live in an established hierarchy with acknowledged leaders. They are willing to be led.
Sessions involve teaching veterans the skills necessary to lead a 1,200-pound animal through various activities and challenges. A veteran must establish a relationship with his or her horse and earn its trust, respect and cooperation. There is a language to be learned.
An agitated client is met with an agitated horse. A disengaged client finds his or her horse to be disengaged. Calm begets calm. Engagement begets engagement.
"Everything else kind of disappears," said Jasmin Ward, 28, of Beech Grove, a former Marine military policeman. "I talk to (Goose, her pony) like she's a human being and she understands me."
At the end of a session, discussion revolves around the veteran's observations of the horse's interaction and behavior and comparing it to his or her own. The objective is to process the lessons learned during the session and apply them in everyday life.
"The reason it works so well is the horse provides immediate feedback," Anderson said. "Horses respond in the moment. If a person is depressed and has zippo personal energy, the horse isn't going to do anything.
"Our veterans hear it from the horse so much better than a human talking at them. Horses give honest feedback. We build on that."
David Moors, 29, of Indianapolis, served as a Navy prison guard, among other things, during his 2008-09 tour of duty in Iraq.
His left shoulder socket was destroyed, his biceps, triceps and pectoral muscles torn and his occipital nerve and two vertebrae damaged when team members dragged him out of a murderous mob during a Death Row prison riot.
Moors came home to nightmares and panic attacks, fear of crowds and moments of blind rage. He hated civilians. He didn't understand why, only that he no longer fit.
He became involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit agency dedicated to fostering "the most successful, well-adjusted generation of wounded service members in our nation's history."
As was the case with McLaughlin, Bennett and Ward, WWP referred Moors to Strides to Success. It was a life-changing connection.
"It was crazy. It was after my second or third session I had this, like, breakthrough," Moors said. "I was just so much calmer. It was wow.
"You leave here and it's like, I learned all this stuff today. You process it, and a couple hours later, the next day, you just slowly see it working."
From the time Moors' post-traumatic stress disorder was diagnosed, he was determined to overcome it, not to be defined by it. He underwent Navy therapy. He got on medication. He pursued more therapy through the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Nothing worked like the VETS program at Strides. Moors felt it. His wife reveled in it. Courtney Moors found her husband of eight years calmer, more able to cope with stress, suffering fewer nightmares.
"Sitting and talking to somebody in an office did nothing compared to learning the different skills he learned with the horse therapy," she said.
"He's not as afraid to go out in public, and he doesn't seem to be as much a loner. He has a better way of communicating, and that has really helped our family. We don't shout to have a conversation."
The sweetest payoff has been with the Moors' daughters, Victoria, 8, and Nicole, 5. They come readily to Dad now.
Moors still has bad days, but he is enrolled at Ivy Tech Community College, earning his prerequisites with the intention of transferring to Indiana University Purdue-University Indianapolis to earn a degree in environmental health and safety.
You might say he's saddling up his future.
A 2012 Veterans Affairs study revealed that nearly 30 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated at the department's facilities suffer from PTSD, an anxiety disorder that can result from a traumatic experience and cause flashbacks, nightmares, depression, withdrawal and isolation, panic attacks and psychic numbing.
A 2008 RAND Corp. study placed the figure higher, at 20 percent of all Iraq and Afghanistan service members.
McLaughlin, 37, of Greenwood, fit the profile. He just didn't know it. He was thrust into combat in 1996. His PTSD wasn't diagnosed until 2010.
McLaughlin was an Army tanker. He served in a quick reaction force in Bosnia, and he came home in 1997 a different man. The sounds of explosions and gunfire didn't die. The gory visions of genocide remained vivid.
He divorced his wife. He withdrew. He held the world at arm's length.
"I've burned bridges with friends and family," McLaughlin said. "I didn't know what the problem was. They didn't know what the problem was. They just told me I'm changed."
McLaughlin went from active duty to reserve. He went to work.
He passed the rigorous U.S. Postal Service exam, survived the ultracompetitive application process and became a letter carrier. He quit. He couldn't deal with the stress.
McLaughlin took the classes, underwent the training and passed the rigorous firefighter's exam. He survived the ultracompetitive application process and became a firefighter. He quit again. He couldn't deal with the stress.
McLaughlin wasn't a drinker before Bosnia. He drank to excess afterward. He wasn't a brawler before Bosnia. After, there were bar fights and scrapes. Anger was a huge issue, as were nightmares and awakening in sweats. He lost confidence. He lost his sense of self.
McLaughlin's sessions at Strides have been healing, life-turning. He was so passive initially he couldn't engage his horse, Onyx. He had to summon lost energy and authority and project them. The carryover into daily life has been dramatic.
"What's the magic? That's a good question," said McLaughlin, a Los Angeles native who settled in Greenwood during a tour of duty at Camp Atterbury. "The horse senses there's a leader in everyone. You've just got to find it."
Onyx helped him.
McLaughlin has undergone 10 surgeries for service-connected problems over the past nine years. His medical retirement is pending after 19 years in the military. He is more calm and peaceful. He has completed his master's in business administration and is considering options to open a business. His sense of self and personal authority is being restored, absolute prerequisites to launching a startup.
"He's more confident. I feel like his self-esteem is coming back," said Janette McLaughlin, an Army pharmacist technician and Doug's wife of nine years. "I feel like this is a new start. He seems much happier. It's been a good thing for us."
WWP's faith in horse therapy is such that it has resulted in a partnership with PATH. WWP awarded the association a $200,000 grant for the purpose of providing scholarships to veterans at PATH centers across the country.
One-hour sessions that typically run $75 to $100 at Strides, which also is taking referrals from Roudebush VA Medical Center, cost veterans nothing. Treatment normally consists of 10 sessions, but follow-ups can be worked out when deemed necessary.
"Mondays are my favorite day: horse day," said Beth Schubert, a Roudebush recreational therapist who accompanies a group of four veterans to their weekly Strides sessions. "My goal always is to improve the quality of life and for (veterans) to feel they have a purpose in life."
Strides, Schubert has found, is profoundly effective in those regards.
Bennett is undergoing extra sessions. His healing has been mental, emotional and physical.
He stands in the middle of a corral, directing Gunner, a mischievous 12-year-old paint. Bennett motions Gunner in. The horse approaches for a rub on the nose. Bennett motions Gunner back. The horse backs out. Bennett signals for Gunner to trot around the corral's perimeter, then to reverse direction and trot again. The horse complies.
Bennett loves Gunner. Theirs is a strong and well-founded relationship. Bennett is lost in the exercise. He holds a "carrot stick," a 4-foot rod with a leather tail, in his left hand. He controls the horse with it.
Bennett nearly lost that hand in Iraq. His wrist is fused, the hand barely capable of clenching the stick, but he is learning to use it and to get past his self-consciousness regarding its dramatic disfigurement.
"Gunner doesn't care about what's happened in the past," said Bennett, who is deeply involved in vets-helping-vets activities. "He's given me faith in my left hand. It's amazing how he's transformed my life. I have such a peace leaving here."