Of Mustangs and Warriors

Can wild horses and broken soldiers help each other?

By Larry Shook
Ah Kah Tah is a Blackfeet Indian phrase that means “Going Home.” My friend Earl Barlow, a Blackfeet, told me that.

Ah Kah Tah is also the name Nate Ostrander and I have given to the five-year-old mustang gelding we brought home from the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse holding facility at Burns, Oregon. We’re going to experiment on both the horse and me.

Here’s our question: can you take a sixty-nine-year old veteran whose heart and psyche have been shattered by war and teach him to train a mustang—a creature arrested in the heaven of open range for the crime of freedom—in a way that gives both him and the horse a new life?

If the answer is yes it could be very good news for all of us—people and horses.

Good news for people, because in the five thousand years of written history in which we have fought fifteen thousand wars—yup, three per year—we haven’t been able to face the ugly truth in which the syndrome known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) rubs our faces. Namely, that war is just a form of suicide.

Our project, which we also call Ah Kah Tah, could be good news for horses, too, because it might finally help us wake up and recognize that they are mystical emissaries who can help us learn—or remember—the silent language of Creation. Horses seen as holy messengers and partners in healing would enjoy much better treatment at human hands than they have so far received.

If the answer is no… Well, put it this way: plenty of people say we’re crazy. Horses are dangerous, twenty times more dangerous than motorcycles. Wild horses can be especially dangerous. They grow up in places where cougars drop from trees onto their backs. So if our little experiment doesn’t work out I’ve told Nate to just give my remains to the BLM. They can take me out back at the Burns facility and use the backhoe to bury me with the other mustangs that didn’t make it.

Author Larry Shook, Ah Kah Tah, and trainer Nate Ostrander in late September.
Author Larry Shook, Ah Kah Tah, and trainer Nate Ostrander in late September.

If that sounds like bravado, or a veiled death wish, you misunderstand. I want to live. I don’t want to carry to the grave the broken heart I brought home with me from Vietnam. I want to mend.

“Mustang,” by the way, was the radio call sign of my helicopter gunship platoon in Vietnam.

My Year of Living Murderously

I was in Vietnam in 1967-68, deadliest year of the war. I fought in the Tet Offensive, deadliest battle of the war. I logged 1,200 combat hours in nine months. I fired about a million rounds through my M-60 machine gun, about ten million rounds through my miniguns, fired thousands of rockets from my ship, each with a reported killing radius of 30 meters. Rocket

I took part in orgies of death in which weapons were used to kill people in gruesome ways.  I saw Eden poisoned by Agent Orange. I was jarred from sleep by 122-millimeter Russian rockets. I flew in nights streaked by red and green tracers.

I was a molecule in a contagion of violence. I was shot down three times.

I can’t say that I came home from war—I’m still working at it—but the me who returned to America was as wild as any four-legged mustang.

I still have flashbacks after all these years. The other day I was driving under a perfect summer sky, looking out on beautiful forested hills, and suddenly tracers seemed to be flying from my eyes. Most frightening are the thoughts of suicide. They aren’t mine. They’re a demon’s.

With my son, I visited my 91-year-old mother recently in a Southern California nursing home. My son asked her what I was like when I got back from the war. Mom has macular degeneration. Tears leaked from her blind eyes. “He was sick,” she said.

My mother still has no idea what I was part of in Vietnam.

GunnerThe sickness of war—what we call PTSD, Native Americans called the “ghost sickness”—has never left me. (Go here to read about War’s Hidden Wound, from a Nez Perce perspective.) On too many recent nights nightmares have awakened me in a sweat soaked bed. I still have flashbacks after all these years. The other day I was driving under a perfect summer sky, looking out on beautiful forested hills, and suddenly tracers seemed to be flying from my eyes. Most frightening are the thoughts of suicide. They aren’t mine. They’re a demon’s.

The VA tried giving me the anti-depressant Trazodone to help me sleep. At one-quarter the full dose—twelve-and-a-half milligrams—the drug made me think I was going mad.

“We forget that combat chemically altered your brain,” Nikki Angelo, one of my VA counselors, told me. “Then we throw more chemicals at you. Stop taking the pills.”

I already had.

Horse Medicine

Which brings me to Ah Kah Tah. I come to him in the latter part of the long, confused and mostly secret Odyssey that has been my life since Vietnam. After the war I attempted, as soldiers do, to release the pause button on my life and get back to it. But it doesn’t work that way. War makes you into someone else.

These days we have technology—functional magnetic resonance imaging and such—that shows that combat trauma changes the delicate structures of the brain that govern everything about your life—your will to live, find purpose, work, sleep, relax, form and nurture relationships, concentrate, trust, control your temper.

After I came home from Vietnam, I returned to school and flunked out because I couldn’t focus. I didn’t fit anymore. I felt like a savage who had been raised by savages, like I was surrounded by cannibals.

But I dutifully rebuilt my grades at a community college, re-entered San Diego State, came across an idea in a sociology class that I thought I could steer by: “Set in motion behavior characteristic of an emotion will accrue.” Fake it ‘til you make it, in other words.
I tried. No go.

So I dropped out, rented a small log cabin at the mouth of Fry Creek on Lake Pend Oreille in North Idaho, and wrote about Vietnam for two years. In that time and space, I lived with an arrow sticking out of my chest that no one could see. There was no way to remove it. I had to be very careful not to bump it. Sometimes I went into what was then the village of Sandpoint, but people brushed against my arrow there, and so I retreated to my cabin. It wasn’t as lonely as the bars. Still, at night, when I caught my face reflected in the cabin’s windows, I did not know who I was.

My landlords at Fry Creek were Elum and Ida Moore. Elum carried next to his heart a German machine gun bullet that found him in the Belleau Woods during WW I. Ida, big, strong and gentle, was an expert horsewoman. In the pasture between my cabin and the Moore place lived a friendly beast, a wonderful buckskin quarter horse gelding, named Duke, who’d been retired from barrel-racing because of a wire-cut leg. He belonged to a friend of mine who let me ride him (“Just don’t gallop him”) in return for taking care of him. Some teenage rodeo queen must have loved Duke with all her being, tended his education accordingly, and then, with a broken heart, pensioned him carefully when his competitive days were ended by barbed wire. A pretty little sorrel mare kept Duke company.

If Duke missed racing he didn’t show it. Stroll, don’t strut. Enjoy the sun, smell the wind, return to grazing. I knew nothing about horses, but Duke knew enough about himself, and somehow enough about me, to admit me into the fairy tale that I could ride. The fairy tale that I deserved his companionship. Duke took me into the world that was his home, and it was beautiful.

Ida coached me on caring for him. I loved to groom him just to touch and smell him.AKT trotting

In the album of my memory there is an imaginary photograph of me standing at the pasture fence watching Duke graze. I spent so many hours that way, captured in this nonexistent picture, that there are long star lines—and sun lines and moon lines—streaking over me, as in time-lapse photography.

Once, when we were reconning rice paddies, somewhere outside Saigon, we came upon children playing with boats in a pond. Again, I was in the low ship, maybe fifty feet in the air. I took in the picture of innocence with my machine gun in my lap. We drifted on, like a pair of hawks.

Pretty soon our radio crackled with orders.

“We have suspects in a pond behind you. Check them out,” the lieutenant colonel, our boss in the command and control helicopter high above us said. He was carrying a Vietnamese advisor with him, a village chief, as I recall, someone who supposedly knew what the VC were up to in the area.

“We already did,” responded my pilot, a kid like me, maybe twenty or twenty-one years old. “They’re just kids playing with boats.”

After a moment of silence the voice came back: “My counterpart says they’re VC children. Go ahead and kill them.”

A thought thought me: If we turn back toward those kids I’m going to kill the pilots.  

We would all die. I was flooded with guilt about my prospective murder, the grief of our families. But preemptive murder is all I could come up with. For me, this was the most terrifying aspect of Vietnam. Not the threat of death and maiming, but the realization of the insanity, moral ambiguity, sensory overload that you were part of. The absolute evil of war could suck you in at any moment, cause you to err in the blink of an eye, or turn you into a beast that you’d have to live with for the rest of your life.

“Tell your counterpart that if he wants those kids dead he’ll have to kill them himself.”

That’s the best that the kid who was flying my gunship could come up with amidst all that short circuitry.

The depravity I was part of in Vietnam left me with what the shrinks now call a “moral injury.” Fancy clinical phrase for what feels like a spinal cord injury of the soul: you’re cut off from who you were before. The plain English for moral injury, say the shrinks: “betrayal of what’s right…”

The person I might have been can no longer be; I can never know him. And it’s not just because that person was lost in the war, like so many others, but because I…  killed him…

My heart was broken. I was a lost beggar standing there at Duke’s pasture fence…

The Best War Story I Know

Bob Nevins was a medevac pilot in Vietnam. During a rescue attempt one day, hovering above a jungle in which men murdered one another, Nevins’s ship was hit by an RPG. Two of his crew members were killed outright. Nevins fell into the jungle upside down in a fireball.

“I kissed my ass good-bye,” he told me.

Before he hit the ground two things happened: he had an out-of-body experience; and he had insights.

“I saw myself sitting next to myself in the cockpit,” he told me, “saw myself dying, an arm being torn off and so forth. In that instant I experienced my spirit and realized there is no death. Death is an illusion. I felt at peace. And then, just before we hit, I understood where war comes from. Human beings are predators. War comes from our predatory consciousness. As long as we stay in predatory consciousness there will be war, and the wars will just keep getting worse, but we don’t have to remain in predatory consciousness.”

He thought all of that as he was falling to earth. And then, an instant before impact, he thought: That’s what Christ was trying to say… !


But he wasn’t dead. Nevins rescued his unconscious crew chief and pilot from the burning helicopter (Nevins was co-pilot that day), called in air strikes on the enemy, organized the rescue of his surviving crew and wounded infantrymen, and was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross for his actions.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said when he recounted this incident to me. “I’m not talking about religion. I’m just telling you what I experienced and what went through my head.”

Several years ago, when horse whisperers and Monty Roberts were all the rage, Nevins took a Monty Roberts class out of idle curiosity. (He doesn’t consider himself a horseman and has no designs on becoming one.) In that class Nevins experienced what Roberts calls “hook up.” The horse bonds with you as a herd member. It’s an electric moment that can conjure a kind of deep memory. It’s so powerful that many people are moved to tears. Hook up filled Nevins with a sense of wonder and serenity he hadn’t known since that moment in Vietnam when he realized death is a bogeyman and we don’t have to kill each other in wars.

Now fast forward to a few years ago when accounts of veteran suicides started making headlines. Nevins had been active in Vietnam veteran affairs and he knew first hand of the suicide epidemic among his generation.

He didn’t want to stand by and watch the same tragedy repeated among the families of his younger brothers and sisters returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. And he wondered: could hook up somehow reset the circuit breaker of the psyche that is tripped by war?

Bob Nevins used his retirement income as an American Airlines captain and created Saratoga WarHorse, an equine therapy program for veterans in the historic thoroughbred racing community of Saratoga, N.Y. Nevins built his program around hook up. Many participants credit it with saving their lives.

Wrestling the demon of my own PTSD, I attended Saratoga WarHorse in the summer of 2014. There I encountered the old miracle, this forgotten glow in my heart put there long ago by Duke.

Saratoga paired me with a quarter horse named Whiskey, once owned by a cowboy, they told me. The hardness of Whiskey’s cowboy life could be inferred from the scars on his shoulders. How anyone could hurt a horse like that is beyond me, but the cowboy obviously didn’t kill Whiskey’s spirit.

with Whiskey
With Whiskey, summer 2014

As directed, I moved Whiskey about the round pen in a kind of choreographed thunder dance. Then I stopped and waited. Whiskey walked up to me and put his nose on my shoulder. “I choose you,” he said with that gesture. “You and me, buddy, we’re a herd.”

Something that felt like fifty thousand volts of electricity shot through me. That’s hook up. It’s a visceral, spiritual, non-verbal experience of connection, or reconnection. Maybe a blast of the neurotransmitter oxytocin is behind the sensation. Maybe it’s something as mysterious as the origin of the universe itself.

“Believe me when I tell you that working with horses can be exciting—practically intoxicating at times—because you are learning to play with magic,” writes horseman and brain surgeon Alan Hamilton in his book Zen Mind, Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses. “To the extent that we allow our horses to teach us not just how to listen to chi [life force] but how to speak it, we open our hearts and minds to the living connections we have to the whole Universe.”

Whatever, it was all the evidence I needed that life is beautiful and worth living. The hook up—the bolt of connection between Whiskey and me—was irrefutable evidence that I’m not lost, after all.

I can’t come any closer than that to putting words to it. There is  a photograph (above) that records my moment of communion with Whiskey at Saratoga WarHorse.

A Chosen Sanity

California freeways leave me a nervous wreck. Shopping malls make me edgy. I’m good at looking normal but inside I’m like a man who was made to stare at the sun.

The other day I took my grandson to a hobby shop to buy him a remote control car. I wanted to curl up in a ball afterward. Why? God only knows. Two years ago at a Christmas party, in a beautiful home with gracious hosts and nice guests, the conversations all around me started to sound like babble. After a while I saw lips moving but heard just noise and wanted to run. Why? God only knows.

I think of this as my “coyote in the intersection” syndrome. I try to cover up these feelings, but that just makes me feel ashamed and broken and even lonelier by being reminded of how different I am from everyone else. America is the most powerful military nation in history but only about one-tenth of one percent of our citizens have experienced combat and know what it’s like to live with the “psychiatric injury” of war.

Trauma changes you. From an evolutionary standpoint, that seems to be its purpose. It enhances survival potential by installing a lightening-quick reactivity to threat. The problem is that such reactivity in non-threatening circumstances is disastrous. It makes you a fugitive from normal life.

Acute trauma, like a car accident, produces short-term brain changes. Chronic trauma, like I experienced in Vietnam, yields permanent brain changes. That’s why they say PTSD can’t be cured. You just have to rewire your brain around it. And rewire you must, because daily living with a brain geared for war is like trying to drive a Ferarri a hundred miles an hour in a parking lot.

In that time and space, I lived with an arrow sticking out of my chest that no one could see. There was no way to remove it. I had to be very careful not to bump it. Sometimes I went into what was then the village of Sandpoint, but people brushed against my arrow there, and so I retreated to my cabin. It wasn’t as lonely as the bars. Still, at night, when I caught my face reflected in the cabin’s windows, I did not know who I was.

How many memories of war were left in me by my 1,200 combat flying hours? Plenty, I know, because they still bubble up. Can you imagine what it’s like to walk through a rubber plantation where hundreds of human beings have been killed by napalm? A nightmare recently reminded me.

Still, amidst all the madness I experienced in Vietnam there was a single moment when I felt something snap inside me. (Keep in mind that the Army trained me to kill, and I was killing, at a time when my immature brain was still five years away from being capable of Phantom strikeadult discernment.) This particular event happened about half way through my yearlong tour. It was terrifying, because I could feel how serious it was. There was no time to reflect on it then, of course, but the instant I set foot back on American soil I felt the sharp pain of what had happened. It’s the pain of no longer belonging. (Killers don’t belong in polite society.) I have lived with it every moment since.

And the other evening when I was working with Ah Kah Tah I actually felt that old “hurt beyond telling” start to mend. It’s as though my soul has a hole in it and Ah Kah Tah is a darning needle. “You and me, buddy,” Ah Kah Tah seemed to say. “Maybe we can find our way together.”

Achilles in Vietnam: Combat Trauma and the Undoing of Character is one of the most respected books on the subject of PTSD. Former VA psychiatrist Jonathan Shay wrote it. A major theme of Dr. Shay’s book is that war damages the mind and spirit in ways that society does not want to admit.

“Learn the psychological damage that war does, and work to prevent war,” Dr. Shay urges.

“There is no contradiction between hating war and honoring the soldier. Learn how war damages the mind and spirit, and work to change those things in military institutions and culture that needlessly create or worsen these injuries. We don’t have to go on repeating the same mistakes. Just as the flak jacket has prevented many physical injuries, we can prevent many psychological injuries.”

Dr. Shay wrote that in 1994. And yet, more than 20 years later, the PTSD epidemic among America’s veterans and their families is a scandal. According to the VA, some 8,500 American veterans now take their own lives annually. That’s about five times more deaths than we suffered in the slaughterhouse of Tet. Evidence suggests that three times more Vietnam vets have committed suicide than were killed in the war. And right now, again according to the VA, American women veterans are 12 times more likely to commit suicide than their civilian sisters.

Why? Because the American government doesn’t care? Because the American people don’t care?

I don’t think so.

If government didn’t care I wouldn’t be receiving the disability benefits I am—and without them I might well be one of those guys you see holding up cardboard signs on street corners. (If you’re an American taxpayer, I thank you for your service.) And a recent Syracuse University study found that “nearly 45,000 nongovernmental, nonprofit groups nationwide focus on veterans and military issues, many ‘largely going it alone in their efforts’ to provide services.”

It’s as though hometown America is holding bake sales to fund treatment for the injuries of war. That’s about like selling cookies to pay for aircraft carriers.

My wild horse has fifty-five million years of survival recorded in akt solohis genes to my scant two hundred thousand years. In a moment of shared crisis the odds favor him. I don’t want to play poker with him any more than I want to gamble against nature. And I don’t have to. I can let Ah Kah Tah teach me how to be a different kind of human being. I can change my mind.

No, America’s veterans aren’t suffering because Americans don’t care. They care a lot. They just don’t yet know how to translate their caring into effective action.

I think the real problem—if you can trust the opinion of someone with PTSD—is a crisis of human consciousness. I agree with former Lt. Col. Dave Grossman who warns in his book On Killing that humanity has come under the dark spell of a “cult of violence.” Not a pacifist by nature, Grossman is a 23-year Army veteran—an elite Ranger –and former professor of psychology at West Point.
“We are most assuredly on the road to ruin, and we need desperately to find the road home from this dark and fearful place to which we have traveled,” he warns.

Given humanity’s current mental condition, I’m afraid that admonition’s like Dr. Shay’s and Lt. Col. Grossman’s sound about like it would have sounded to Marco Polo had someone advised him to ship with FedEx or UPS instead of camels. I have two things to say about that.

First, I don’t know how to end war anymore than you do. Second, there’s a big difference between ending war and healing the injuries of war. Just because we don’t know how to stop war doesn’t keep us from developing sophisticated prosthetics to replace lost limbs.

And that’s where horses come in. They’re herbivores, we’re predatory carnivores. For us to work safely with them, and to experience the mystical therapeutic union reflected in the old saw, “The best thing for the inside of a person is the outside of a horse,” we have to allow them to renew us by transforming our minds. There’s a phrase for this: horse sense.

Science is showing us that horse sense in the form of equine therapy can help heal PTSD. I happen to think the same evidence suggests that it can also help humanity pull out of its nosedive by transforming human consciousness, just as St. Paul recommends. (“Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind…”)

I think horse sense is the saving grace that I experienced from Duke all those years ago. I really think that horse may have saved my life. I now realize that what snapped inside me in Vietnam was the slender thread of trust. Duke somehow threw me a lifeline. Now I think of him as an angel that I entertained unaware. Horse sense seems to be what came over me at Saratoga WarHorse. I was walking through the stables and I thought—I think it was the smell— “I want to live in the world of horses.”

The other evening when I felt Ah Kah Tah working his mysterious soul repair on me, it was trust that was returning. Ah Kah Tah was showing that he was beginning to trust me. And I was trusting him. We both just want to live.

Humanity’s crisis of consciousness—what I think of as the pre-traumatic stress disorder that clouds our communion with everything—is automatically repaired by a respectful relationship with the horse.

Ah Kah Tah, my wild horse, is dangerous, yes, but dangerous in direct proportion to my unconsciousness of his nature. Therein lies the healing miracle of horses.

Ah Kah Tah is the ultimate non-predator. I am this planet’s apex predator. My wild horse has fifty-five million years of survival recorded in his genes to my scant two hundred thousand years. In a moment of shared crisis the odds favor him. I don’t want to play poker with him any more than I want to gamble against nature. And I don’t have to. I can let Ah Kah Tah teach me how to be a different kind of human being. I can change my mind.

Toward A New Kind of Cavalry 

Two teachers and a student. That’s the idea behind the project that professional horse trainer Nate Ostrander and I have embarked upon. The teachers are Nate and Ah Kah Tah. The student is yours truly, one of history’s countless “psychiatric casualties of war.” Again, the name of the project is the same as the horse.

The other evening when I was working with Ah Kah Tah I AKTLarrybactually felt that old “hurt beyond telling” start to mend. It’s as though my soul has a hole in it and Ah Kah Tah is a darning needle. “You and me, buddy,” Ah Kah Tah seemed to say. “Maybe we can find our way together.”

The Ah Kah Tah hypothesis is that war is a product of human consciousness and that horse sense is an alternative consciousness that can heal the injuries of war and, as Dr. Shay recommends, help humanity “work to prevent war.”

Humanity has never done that. We’re not doing it now. One of the most damning pieces of evidence of this that I know of is what psychologist/warrior Grossman calls “the paradox of combat psychiatry.”

The problem, argues Lt. Col. Grossman, “is that the military does not want to simply return the psychiatric casualty to normal life, it wants to return him to combat!”

In On Killing, he cites the evidence that throughout history most soldiers have been loathe to kill. The misimpression that they are natural, bloodthirsty killers, he says, comes from the ugly glorified distortions of self-aggrandized militarized history.

Lt. Col. Grossman’s chilling tour de force of scholarship describes, among other things, how Brig. Gen. S.L.A. Marshall, the Army’s official WWII combat historian and a WWI combat veteran himself, documented that “in WWII 80 to 85 percent of riflemen did not fire their weapons at an exposed enemy, even to save their lives and the lives of their friends. In previous wars, non-firing rates were similar.

In Vietnam the non-firing rate was close to five percent.”

What happened? Brainwashing, writes Grossman. The military started using powerful psychological conditioning techniques to overcome the taboo against killing.

“And thus, since World War II, a new era has quietly dawned to modern warfare: an era of psychological warfare—psychological warfare conducted not upon the enemy, but upon one’s own troops.”

The moral implications of this are the basis of the Ah Kah Tah experiment. The scientific evidence is overwhelming that you can’t train healthy people to kill without harming them, and if you send them to the killing fields of war they will be further harmed, because they know killing is wrong. It goes without saying that if we send people to war we have a moral duty to bring them home, not just numb their homesickness with drugs. Any warring society that eschews this duty, as all of humanity is at the moment, is clearly engaged in the punishment of virtue.AKT runnin'

One way for me to think about this project is that Nate, Ah Kah Tah and I have formed this mini-skunk works where we’re experimenting with wild-soldier-transformation-by-wild-horse. We’re inventing the curriculum on the fly—and sometimes the flying is as wild as the horse and the soldier. But already the evidence is clear that a protocol can be created that can help save the 50,000 or so wild horses now being held in BLM facilities and can help save the walking wounded who will keep returning from our wars as long as we keep sending them. There’s a simple reason for this: healthy human beings do not like to kill. Horses, among the most powerful non-killers on earth, are powerful healers of the wounds of war. This includes the predatory consciousness that causes war.

My hope for this program is well founded. For decades now inmates in the nation’s prisons have had their recidivism rates cut in half from the skills and values they’ve learned from training wild horses. Equine therapy has proven more effective than drugs or conventional psychotherapy in helping rape victims recover. Equine therapy is one of the most beneficial and cost effective programs for helping at risk youths. It goes on and on.

For decades, the U.S. Army Cavalry School perfected the art of turning raw recruits into capable horsemen. All it takes is will to create something like a Fort Ah Kah Tah to use horses to heal the injuries of war instead of waging war.

 The Scent of a Horse

This has been a very hard piece for me to write. I started it on the day Nate and I left to pick up our mustang:

The Gather. 7/21/15. Departure under a powder blue sky with a stiff breeze blowing the heat away. Aimed for nine o’clock getaway; we’re off at 11:00…

There’s a chill now in the Blood Moon fall air as I finish. In another life, when I was state editor of Seattle Weekly, say, and an investigative reporting stud who cranked out 3,000-word cover story exposés in two weeks, this little account would have been done long ago. But that was then. This is now.handson

Then I was still deep in denial about Vietnam. Plenty of people who knew me didn’t even know I’d been there. And those who did know—well, I never talked about it with them.

And now I’m the guy who if you ask when he was in Vietnam has to answer, “last night.”

Last night, awake in my bed like Jason Bourne, the fictional assassin.

Like Bourne, I was programmed by my country to kill when I was young. Writing about this stuff sets the long freight train of memories to rumbling. I lay there alone in bed, remembering things I wish I could forget, feeling the thousand-yard stare in my eyes.

And so I haven’t been sleeping much at night, have to sleep when I can during the day, and my brain just doesn’t work the way it used to. If I can write at all any more it takes an eternity longer than it used to. The thoughts form, but the words won’t come. And when they do come they’re like slow drops of water forming stalagmites in a dark cave.

But that’s okay. I have Ah Kah Tah now.

Our last fueling stop after hauling Ah Kah Tah from Burns was at Ritzville, fifty miles from home. I got out of the car at the gas station in hundred-degree heat, and the first thing I noticed was the smell of my horse back there in the trailer. Deep, joyful calm filled me.

He smelled like home.


9 thoughts on “Of Mustangs and Warriors”

  1. I just recently lost one of my dearest friends who, for most of the years I have known him, simply was a REALLY good computer programmer. Except in those dark moments when the War swam up, unwanted into his soul, and then there was nothing I could do to help. He died of Agent Orange disease, a particularly evil form of blood cancer.

    Your story helped me cope with Bob’s incredible memory. Thank you, as always.

  2. I have never been assigned to fight a war……yet I have fought in wars since my youngest memories…3-4 years old.
    How can that be, you say…….. I am a child of a military family….a long history of wars and fighting.
    As a child, I did not know about the killing fields, the air strikes, millions of lives lost….all I knew was when we saw my Daddy at the Air Force base, he was in a uniform and my three brothers, my Mother and I were all sobbing. Each time he returned from overseas combat, the Air Force rolled out the red carpet, literally and we all got new clothes. Mommie dressed up, did her hair and make-up, brothers had new shirts, ties, shoes and fresh military haircuts. Only the best looking family for our Daddy and husband.
    Daddy came off the plane (writing this is like being right there this moment) with a huge smile, walking tall in his uniform, bending down to pick me up, hugging my brothers and finally kissing my Mother. Daddy always brought each of us the most wonderful gifts!! I have a beautiful collection of dolls from all over the world and a wonderful set of China, all from my Daddy.
    That was what took place at the “going and coming” of my Daddy, many times over!!
    What took place when he was home was a total different story.
    After the newness wore off and home leave was over and my Daddy returned to daily military work of being an officer, so his drinking returned as well as the abuse to my Mother and youngest brother David.
    Always started the same way…Friday nights the family would all go to the Officers Club for dinner, drinks, dancing and a general good time. All the Ofiicer Kids went to a movie in the same building. Most of the time my Daddy would drive us home and he was drunk. My Mother begging him to let her drive and he would smack her across the face and tell her to shut up!! She did.
    Saturday nights were different……we always had a babysitter….my Mother dressed up beautifully and my Daddy looked so handsome, they went out to dinner with friends and dancing……..and drinking……Saturday nights were different…….my Dad always beat my Mom up when they got home….he was always drunk. We lived on the Base, so one of us Kids called the MP’s……they came and picked my Dad up and took him to the brig……. Every Saturday night!!
    The ironic part of this Saturday night routine was, there was no help for my Father or my Mother.
    Every Sunday, morning that he was in the brig (military jail) on the way to church on Sunday morning, we stopped at the brig, with a clean suit, tie and shoe and picked up my Dad and went to church.
    As a Kid I felt so strange about this….in church, all he did was fall asleep and snore…..us Kids had to poke him to wake him up enough to stop snoring…..it was so embarrassing to me!!
    This was the routine for many years…..when I was in the sixth grade and understood more….I realized both my parents were having affairs!! When Dad was on TDY or in some kind overseas deployment, he had affairs. My Mother learned of this when women started sending letters to our home address,
    My Mother started having affairs, too!! Don’t know why but I can any surmise, loneliness, paybacks. Bottom line, she got caught and my Dad beat the heck out of her….I can still hear her teeth hitting the stainless steel sink.
    Flashbacks are my personal war!! It’s taken me years and years to figure myself out, not all of it is good and there is a lot of room for improvement.
    I still struggle, as I’m married to a retired CMC in the Navy, that finally….is starting to deal with his PTSD, THANKS to LARRY SHOOK!! GOD bless this wonderful man!! Because of him, I took am seeking guidance!! I am a firm believer that GOD puts people in your lives for a reason. I know why Larry is in my life. We both love horses. Had not been for horses my whole life and even today…..I know without a doubt I would have turned to alcohol and drugs and illicit sex!!!
    My horses have saved my life so many times and in so many different ways!!
    Horses are proof that GOD loves us and wants us to be happy.

    1. Thank you for the courage to share your story, Judy. You have “entered by the narrow gate.” The day that all humanity finds the same courage to face the whole truth of war is the day that, as Dr. Edward Tick writes in his book, War and the Soul, “we ain’t gonna study war no more.” President Eisenhower seems to have agreed with Dr. Tick. As the President remarked to British Prime Minister Macmillan more than half-a-century ago: “Indeed, I think that people want peace so much that one of these days governments had better get out of the way and let them have it.”

  3. Written so well. I hope your program blooms into a full scale help for the men and women who are suffering from ptsd. I always go back to what Churchill said-there is something about the outside of a horse that does something wonderful to the inside of a man. Good for you both for having this vision and running with it.

  4. I can’t begin to truly understand what you and all the other soldiers have gone through – still go through, but I thank you for writing this to help us see a bit of your thoughts and feelings.
    I pray this program and others help more with PTSD – and maybe someday war will be something that we all refuse to do.

  5. Excellent education for us all Larry. Especially those who haven’t been there. Now if society as a whole will only listen. Good job!

  6. I am starting to understand PTSD and the pain it causes. I am so thankful to know Larry and the passion he has to not only seek a way of healing for himself but for others too. I’m praying for the success of this project.

  7. The weight of war. The scent of a horse. How can these two come together for healing?

    “I use ‘centering’ as a verb, to mean a continual process of uniting the opposites. Centering, for me, is the discipline of bringing in rather than leaving out; of saying yes to what is most holy as well as to what is most unbearable. The severity of that, as a discipline, is not widely understood.”
    — M.C. Richards

    The severity of bring the most unbearable to the most holy is precisely the discipline spoken of here.

    It humbles the soul.

    Thank you Larry.

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