NAPLES, Fla. — Southwest Florida is home to over 100,000 veterans and their families, that's almost the same number of veterans lost since September 11th.
The statistics are sobering, many veterans return home with invisible wounds that may not be treated right away.
Now, The Naples Therapeutic Riding Center is helping Southwest Florida Veterans cope with those invisible wounds, through a program called Operation Strides, where veterans can cope while caring for horses.
"I had to learn how to be present when I came to the center," Joe Logrippo, a veteran and now board member at the center, "I had my own struggles with PTSD and anxiety and such and I wasn’t exempt from those feelings and experiences," Logrippo said.
Logrippo wasn't looking for a way to cope, he says he came across the program while helping his neighbor, "I told my neighbor that the center offered classes for autistic kids," he says while there he found out about the program, and met Red.
"When I started connecting with him and I wasn’t always present," Red, a horse in the program helped him cope with his PTSD, "The connection was instant, less than 30 seconds."
Those 30 seconds changed his life, "The more I cared for him, the more he responded to me and it was really such a magical experience and connection," Logrippo went from participating in the program to volunteering and now he's on the board of directors.
The program meets once a month and while there are those repeat veterans, he says almost every meeting there is more new faces, "The more veterans I can reach, I know I'm doing my job."
Jeremiah Liberty, a veteran tried the program for the first time Friday evening, and he experienced the same connection, "It’s definitely a warming feeling, you feel human," with a big smile, "I was a little scared at first, you don't realize how big they are," but in less than two hours," I went from fingertips to the horse leaning into my chest."
That, is what Logrippo says the program is all about, bringing veterans and families together, like Goldstar mom, Kim Hayes.
"When I’m around the veterans here, I want my son back and it’s the closest thing I have to that," Hayes said.
Hayes, with other Goldstar moms, volunteers bringing snacks and goodies for the veterans participating in the program, "It's just a bond that glues us together for life."
Logrippo knows the program is making an impact on so many veterans one stride at a time, "Veterans got to stand up and help each other because that’s just how we’re wired anyway."