“It was like Ian couldn’t remember who he was,” said Rebecca, a 25-year-old native of Grand Prairie, Texas, with an educational background in psychology. “He wasn’t there.”
Ian wasn’t sleeping. For months he looked for help, and with the support of his wife, he visited an R&R clinic, spoke with a flight surgeon, began seeing a therapist and regularly spoke with Rebecca about his difficulties re-assimilating into civilian life.
Still, “It was so hard for him to get help,” said Rebecca. “There are so many things he tried to do. Two days after Christmas he went back to in-processing. They checked his teeth, took his blood pressure, asked him if he was going to kill himself and sent him on his way. He sat the entire day in a waiting room to do that. The week before he died he started seeing a therapist and I asked him how it went. He said they just gave him a quick anti-anxiety pill.”
On March 21, 2012, after months of sleepless nights and little relief, Rebecca asked her husband to call the Pentagon’s 24-hour crisis hotline. He did, only to be put on hold for over 45 minutes.
The Army Captain took his own life later that day. He was 26 years old.
Ian’s suicide is not an isolated incident. More soldiers have taken their own lives since the start of the Afghan War than have died during combat. A recent study commissioned by the U.S. Army, entitled “Losing the Battle,” notes that from 2005 – 2010, one soldier took his or her own life at a rate of once every 36 hours. This year alone, the numbers have increased by 18 percent, accounting for nearly one soldier lost by suicide each passing day. While over $2 billion has been spent by the government to turn the tide, the numbers keep climbing. Soldiers keep dying.
But Rebecca is hoping to change all that.
The Morrison’s story was picked up by authors Mark Thompson and Nancy Gibbs for Time Magazine (“The War on Suicide,” July 23, 2012), a heartbreaking article that sheds light on just how widespread the suicide epidemic has become. Shortly before its publication, Rebecca traveled to Washington D.C. to speak at a suicide prevention conference in June. There she met Bob Nevins, Saratoga resident, Vietnam War veteran and co-founder of Saratoga War Horse. Nevins, said Rebecca, left an immediate impression on her.
“I was telling her how courageous she was to come out and really speak on behalf of her husband,” said Nevins. “Nobody is paying attention to this stuff because they don’t like to. The way she put it to the conference, she got their attention. We’re not going to let this continue.”
Nevins’ program, Saratoga War Horse, pairs retired, world-class Thoroughbred race horses with veterans struggling to re-assimilate into civilian life, fostering a unique bond between equine and soldier. The program takes advantage of a horse’s natural tendencies as a herd animal, one who seeks leadership and approval from those around it, to facilitate a connection between the giant animals and their veteran counterparts. For dozens of veterans who have participated in the program so far, the experience is powerful, often difficult to describe. As one participant put it, “It’s like a light goes on and you feel a little warmth with that horse. You don’t want to let it go… You are just a little bit of a different person now then you were before you walked in.”
The fledgling program is witnessing astonishing results and overwhelmingly positive feedback – so much so that the V.A. has taken notice. And so has Rebecca.
“Watching videos on the website – [the veterans] remember who they are,” Rebecca observed.
“Even before my husband passed away – if I was having a bad day or something as a kid, I would just go bury my face in my horse’s neck or go for a ride, and it just gets your brain out of whatever it is you’re stuck on,” said Rebecca.
Rebecca took riding lessons from an early age, and received a scholarship to ride on the equestrian team at Stephen F. Austin University. Ian knew how much she loved horses – “He had a really great way with them,” she said, and together the two bought a horse which Ian named “Ike.”
“He always made it a priority for me to have a horse,” said Rebecca. Her mother, Pam, noted that Ian had even painted a picture of a horse for Rebecca as her wedding present. “When he was with the horse, he was calmer,” she said.
After Ian’s death, Rebecca left the care of her horses with another trainer while she took time to recover. One month later, on her birthday, she decided to visit the barn.
“It was a really, really bad time,” said Rebecca. “And my horse – that was actually the first time I really rode him, because he was so young and he was getting broken and everything. But he pretty much saved my life,” she said. “It was exhilarating. I felt like I was alive again.”
For Rebecca, there’s something poetic and extremely personal about using horses to help other struggling veterans and their families. After hearing about Saratoga War Horse, she traveled to Saratoga Springs to witness the program first-hand, arriving Tuesday, July 24.
From its founding, Nevins has hoped that Saratoga War Horse would serve as a national model to help reach a greater number of struggling veterans. With luck and a bit of funding, this is exactly what Rebecca hopes to do.
“I would like to take this to Fort Lewis and the Fort Hood base,” she said. “Those are two of the biggest bases, and if we had something nearby – if even we could get it to where we could help 100 people this year – then 100 families don’t have to lose their dad or their husband.”
“I think maybe,” she added, “my lot in life is to help people.”
Saratoga War Horse is a service provider structured to accept private and public funding through The Equus Effect, a 501(c)3 entity. Contributions to The Equus Effect are used to support a permanent facility for the War Horse program, and to sponsor all veterans who wish to participate and attend. All contributions are 100 percent tax deductible. To support the program, checks designated for “The War Horse Project” can be mailed to: The Equus Effect, 37 Drum Road, Sharon, CT 06069.
To learn more about Saratoga War Horse, visit www.saratogawarhorse.com.