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.”