Roger Crothers inched forward with his hands outstretched, the wild mustang before him backing toward the edge of the small corral as he approached.
"Good girl; it's all right," Crothers whispered as he reached out to pet the side of the mare's bay neck. "I missed you."
Crothers is the first participant of Healing Horses Therapeutic Riding Program's new horse riding and mustang training services for veterans, known as Horses for Heroes.
Healing Horses is known for working with able-bodied and disabled children. The veterans' services are a new endeavor for Executive Director Amy DeCramer. Funds have been collected through Veterans United and private donations for five veterans to participate in 16 weeks free of charge. So far, only Crothers has started.
"This is an ongoing process," DeCramer said. "Crothers looks forward to it, and it's something that brings him peace."
The 69-year-old Jefferson City resident works with a middle-aged mustang, Navajo, to treat PTSD suffered for nearly 50 years. The former air traffic controlman third class has never worked with horses before, but after five weekly sessions, Crothers said Navajo is a kindred spirit.
"She's a wild horse, and I used to be a pretty wild man," Crothers said through a thick, white mustache. "It's a great program, and (DeCramer) has a good heart, a real good heart. It's helped me."
Mustang therapy allows veterans to work through distrust, anger management and other issues alongside a wild animal with its own traumatic experiences. As mustangs are taught to trust human touch and direction, so too do the veterans, as they learn to more effectively manage the wild within and without.
Crothers has many complicated memories to wrangle. The former seaman served from 1966-70 and manned the catapults and arresting gear on the flight deck of the USS Enterprise aircraft carrier during the Vietnam War.
Navajo, or Navi for short, also has had her share of hard times. The 12-year-old wild horse was taken while pregnant from her herd on the Navajo reservation when there were more horses than food sources. She was shipped off to be slaughtered and had badly injured her right rear foot before Healing Horses stepped in. Since April, she's had plenty of food, caregivers and a healthy foal, Tehya.
Tehya — a Navajo word for "precious" — was born two weeks after Navi came to Healing Horses' ranch outside Linn. DeCramer said Navi ran the trainers out of the stall after Tehya was born because of her protective instincts.
Navi has calmed down in just eight months and quickly warmed up to Crothers. DeCramer said it is amazing how quickly they built trust. The pair try to add a new exercise every session.
"I was a little anxious to begin with, but I'm much more relaxed now," he said. "I just treat (Navi) gently, like she treats me."
Mustang training begins with longing (pronounced "lunging").
Crothers stood Thursday at the center of the circular corral and motioned Navi to move around the ring, holding a whip a few feet behind to guide her. DeCramer said it establishes the power dynamic, letting the horse know Crothers is in control.
People with PTSD often struggle with their sense of control and chaos. Crothers used to slip into fits of rage in times of confusion or conflict. His college-aged son, Zack, was the first to suggest the reason might be PTSD.
The Enterprise was part of the armada sent off the North Korean coast after the USS Pueblo was captured in 1968. Eighty-three American sailors were imprisoned as spies; 82 of the men were freed 11 months later.
"We were a bunch of kids, and those were our brothers," Crothers said. "I didn't care how big (the enemy was); I wanted to go get them. I got kind of disappointed with our government for leaving them there for (nearly) a year."
After longing, Crothers pets Navi and gently touches her with the whip, letting her know it's there but won't hurt her. DeCramer said the horse needs to think of the whip as a tool, not a weapon.
In war, many of the tools are weapons, especially on the flight deck, a place of controlled chaos. Sensitivity is certainly not an asset. Crothers said he volunteered for the service to fight and kill the enemy, but friends died even when the enemy was nowhere in sight.
The Enterprise had left North Korea to replace a ship off Vietnam. "It was about 2 o'clock in the morning, and an F-4 (jet) was launching," Crothers said. "When the green takeoff signal went off, a young man stood up to try to stop the plane. A belly flap (had been) left open, but it was too late."
Crothers said he watched as a steam-catapulted wing hit his friend's head and sent him tumbling lifelessly across the deck. Crothers felt especially pained when the runway operation didn't pause to collect scattered remains.
"There was nothing we could do," he said. "Nothing slowed down, nothing stopped, and he was just one of the many who got killed."
Trainers ask horses to yield hindquarters, or allow their back side to be nudged into rotating. This is a safety measure, training the horse against using its powerful back legs to back up or bolt and cause the trainer harm.
Navi rotated as Crothers nudged her hip with the handle of the whip, dancing in tight circles.
When safety measures go awry, things can go wrong quickly with horses or fighter jets. These dangers touched Crothers even after he left the Enterprise the prior fall. A Jan. 14, 1969, explosion killed 28 sailors and injured 314 after a bomb was set off accidentally by the exhaust of equipment used to start aircraft.
Crothers said he knew about half of the men killed.
"It was a disaster," he said.
Flexing helps the horse get used to being guided by reins.
Crothers softly pulled Navi's head toward him, whispering words of comfort.
After the explosion, Crothers resented the government for failing military men as Vietnam veterans lucky enough to come home were received by a hostile public.
"I started wondering what our people were dying for," he said.
However, he wouldn't tell his wife or their children why he was always angry, so he resorted to an untethered lifestyle to drown out his memories. It wasn't until almost 30 years later that he tried to settle down and became a born-again Christian. He later began therapy, was diagnosed with PTSD, and his family finally learned of his haunting experiences.
"He had been so angry, and it almost ruined our marriage five or six times. (But in therapy) the stuff started coming out," his wife, Sharon Crothers, said. "I had no idea. They didn't talk about it. You did your duty and you went home. Coming to (Healing Horses), he's calm and exhilarated when he comes home."
Crothers said veterans' tendency to stay silent about their traumatic experiences is part of the reason they fail to seek help. It took him decades to realize there could be a way to alleviate his pain, if he would just ask for help. He hopes more veterans will join him at Healing Horses. Volunteer veterans with equestrian experience are ready to help men and women.
Another veteran has voiced interest in riding lessons with the large Belgium horse, Atlas, and Crothers has started riding a quarter horse, Kito, when he's not working with Navi. DeCramer said they hope to ride the trails together someday.
Crothers will do his first yield forequarters exercise with Navi next session, but there is still plenty of feral instinct left in the mustang for new veterans. She might have warmed up to him, but wild spirits don't settle down very easily — just ask Crothers.