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Help for veterans - Vietnam vets to get equine assist

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By Mercy Lopez

Roberto Ortiz is no stranger to fighting to stay alive on foreign soil. The effects of flying bullets and being in a war-torn county still are vivid in his mind. But recently Ortiz and several other  Vietnam veterans have been getting help through a program that pairs veterans with horses.

Earlier this year the local Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter No. 1063 teamed up with the local Ride to Pride program, the goal being to help veterans deal with mental and behavioral health issues using equine-assisted therapy.

“When I came home I didn’t want to talk about what I went through in Vietnam,” Ortiz said. “All I was doing was suppressing the feelings. It took me nearly 40 years to bring it out.”

Upon returning from Vietnam, Ortiz spent decades rebelling, including partying, drinking, drugs and women. He says he bundled up his feelings about serving his country in a controversial war. Among the things that lingered in his mind was returning to the U.S. and being criticized for his service.

“Ride to Pride has helped me a lot,” Ortiz said during a recent interview. “Being able to be here and try to help the other veterans is also helpful.”

Ortiz, along with members of the chapter, Paul Salas and Nappy Quintana, are all participating in the equine-assisted program.

The veterans say the program has been a huge help for them,  and they want to let other veterans know about the program so they can get help if they need it.

“Basically, we are trying to reach out to all veterans,” Ortiz says.

The therapy includes counseling services and utilizing horses for psychotherapy to promote positive changes in behavior and emotions.

“A lot of the veterans that have been participating have experienced a change,” Quintana said. “You can see the change in them. They used to be withdrawn and now you see them going out into the community.”

The program is free for all veterans and their families.

“The program helps veterans open up on their experiences,” Ortiz said. “It helps them deal with it all.”

Ortiz, Salas and Quintana say they felt the need to help promote this program because as Vietnam veterans they did not have a lot of the services available now for returning veterans.

“All of us have some issue that we don’t discuss with anyone else,” Ortiz says. “With a horse you can bring it out, and it is good therapy.”

The program addresses various issues that often plague veterans, including substance abuse, violence, communication issues, survivor’s guilt, anxiety, stress, communication issues, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other emotional disorders.

Quintana says innocent people died in the war, and that fact haunted him for years, causing him to have various issues.

“As Catholics we were taught thou shall not kill, but survival was more important than ‘thou shall not kill,’” he says.

Salas, Ortiz and Quintana joined with other veterans and the program to help others with similar experiences.

Salas said roughly 58,000 U.S. service members lost their lives in Vietnam. But 400,000 veterans have since committed suicide and 550,000 are incarcerated, he said.

“We lost a whole generation of young men and women …,” Salas says. “That’s why as veterans we got together to help other veterans and their families.”

Ride to Pride has been in existence since 1997. It was founded by Greg and Lorraine Esquibel. Throughout the years they have helped troubled youths and now veterans in dealing with issues. The program helps both male and female veterans and their families.

“It takes a warrior to ask for help,” Ortiz says. “This program will give you options on how to go about finding peace within yourself.”

The local chapter of Vietnam Veterans of America has also helped and participated in other events, including having an honor guard. Salas said the group was also instrumental in getting the veterans park sign installed by the city recently.