YELM, THURSTON COUNTY —
After six tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Aaron Heliker's luck ran out.
STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Staff Sgt. Aaron Heliker, now a volunteer with Rainier Therapeutic Riding, rides with founder Debbi Fisher.
A roadside bomb left him with third-degree burns, a traumatic brain injury and nerve damage to one leg. But the unseen wounds became the most disabling of all.
The 27-year-old who rode motorcycles, was a whiz at auto-body work and had wanted to be a soldier since he was old enough to ask his mother to "buy some army pants" could no longer tolerate being around people.
He was anxious, hypervigilant, expecting attack. Memories rushed in of his last tour in Afghanistan, the five-hour attack by insurgents his convoy fended off, the soldier he found bleeding to death but was unable to help.
To block out the memories and the surges of anxiety that made him feel always ready for battle, he began to drink. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and sent to a lockdown mental-health facility for veterans.
Faced with overwhelming physical pain, afraid of being close to anyone, and so mired in despair that he could see no hopeful future, Heliker didn't want to continue living.
Then he met Fred.