hgazette.com, Haverhill, MA


May 8, 2008

Shaking the horrors of war

When Donald O'Hagan of Haverhill returned from the frontlines of the Vietnam War, his life was never the same.

He can't seem to shake the horrors of war, or how it felt when he returned home to hear chants of "baby killer."

An Air Force veteran, O'Hagan suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, a severe and ongoing condition formerly known as "shell shock" that develops after exposure to extreme psychological trauma.

He tried suppressing his problems with alcohol, a habit he finally kicked. He then started speaking with a therapist. Little did he know that a suggestion from his psychologist to try horseback riding, a notion he at first dismissed, would greatly improve his outlook on life.

O'Hagan participates in the new Horses for Heroes program at Windrush Farm in Boxford, where the faint buzzing of flies and the clomping of horses' hooves are the subtle soundtrack to a haven from the chaos and pain in the outside world.

Windrush Farm offers therapeutic horseback riding for people with physical and mental challenges, and now with the help of Haverhill Director of Veterans Services Mike Ingham, that mission has expanded to include veterans suffering from their time at war.

"When my psychologist told me about it, I really wasn't interested," O'Hagan said. "I don't have much interest in anything. But I looked up their Web site and it was very impressive. What they do with children is amazing."

Now, his weekly riding session is one of the highlights of his life. Sometimes, the tree lines out at the farm trigger his disorder, a terror that may never fully go away, but learning to ride a horse for the first time calms some of it.

"I'm going to be very disappointed if I can't continue with this," O'Hagan said. "I have no outside interests, no friends. This and my granddaughter are the only things I look forward to."

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