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Therapy from 1 wounded warrior to another

Jan. 2, 2014 - 10:28AM   |  
Cats healed by a different kind of
Cats healed by a different kind of "vet": A Wounded Warrior is a sort of "battlefield angel" for homeless cats at a Clarksville shelter called "Cats Are Us." The arrangement is mutually beneficial and it has given rise to a new idea about animals and therapy.
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CLARKSVILLE, TENN. — There are four wounded, ill and injured warriors living in the Voris household. One of them is human; the other three are cats.

Aaron Voris treats the animals like soulmates. A former infantry soldier, he served with the "Red Currahees" of 1st Battalion, 506th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 101st Airborne Division.

As a result of a particularly rough deployment in Afghanistan, he suffers from back and leg injuries, but even more from traumatic brain injury and severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

He's out of the Army now and working toward becoming a veterinary technician.

Together with his wife, Stephanie, and stepdaughter, Ally, he is getting some practice in as the caretaker of three formerly homeless cats — each damaged in its own way.

Aaron said that, like him, they carry the scars and hurts of hard experience.

Lucy, an undersized and sickly cat, has a type of herpes affecting the lungs. It is a permanent condition and expensive to treat, but Lucy is family, and the expense is borne.

China, nicknamed "Tripod," has three legs, which didn't get in the way of Ally falling in love and adopting her.

Harrison, a 12 year-old gray cat, is the most wounded of all. Blind in one eye and half-blind in the other, with one ear destroyed by mites, he was also emotionally scarred by abuse and neglect.

He languished for a long time at Cats Are Us on the top of Boot Hill, unloved except by the volunteers who cared for him. A frightened loner even among the other cats, he rarely moved from the spot he staked out for himself.

Volunteering at Cats Are Us as therapy for his own wounds, Aaron was struck by Harrison, who was skin and bones from not eating.

"We both looked at each other, and immediately, I think he understood what I was going through, and I understood what he was going through," Aaron said. "I think he has as much PTSD as I do."

Harrison was good medicine for Aaron, and Aaron repaid the favor by giving Harrison a home.

Looking at the two of them together on the couch in Aaron's living room, it is hard to believe what each has endured while maintaining the ability to love without reserve.

Spc. Aaron Voris was a heavy machine-gunner with Able Company's 3rd Platoon during the Afghanistan deployment of 2010-11, when the Screaming Eagles suffered their greatest losses in a dozen years of war.

He saw his share of the bad in Paktika Province - the "Juarez of Afghanistan," as he called it. On a combat outpost that he termed "the Seventh Plane of Hell," he and his platoon were mortared five days a week, and insurgents made regular attempts to overrun the U.S. troops who held the ground.

Because of the danger and the likelihood of enemy contact, Aaron said he made a point of carrying an extra-heavy load — 1,500 rounds of 7.62 millimeter linked machine-gun ammunition — on patrols. Thin and slightly built, the weight caused him back problems.

A fall off a sheer ledge while wearing night-vision goggles during a night air assault added a painful leg injury.

The leg injury got progressively worse, even after he returned home. Having lost over 60 percent functionality and most feeling in his right leg, he can no longer drive.

The PTSD was even worse, fed by two real-life nightmares.

In one, Aaron said, he watched a 7-year-old girl die on a stretcher after tripping an improvised explosive device.

"I saw up close what an IED can do to a human body," he said, staring off across the kitchen table as he recalled the incident.

"And then I ended up getting caught out in the open. This was like within a week of watching a brother die and another almost die.

"I got caught out in the open in what ended up being a two-hour firefight. We were so black (short) on ammo that I ended up running around linking misfires together, putting together a pretty good-sized belt, and I was about to hand it to somebody when my squad leader looked at me and said, 'Voris, I want you to take that belt and get a machine-gun ready and prepare for your last stand.'

"If the Black Hawks (helicopters) hadn't initiated an air strike, we wouldn't have made it."

When Aaron made it home, the traumatic brain injury — a result of two too-close IED blasts and the backblast from an AT-4 rocket launcher - became noticeable, first to Stephanie as Aaron forgot things quickly, completely and repeatedly.

Stephanie said the couple didn't put a name to the problem, nor did they understand what was happening until they heard Jodi McCullah of SAFE (Soldiers and Families Embraced) giving a presentation at one of Stephanie's Rotary Club meetings.

SAFE is a nonprofit, free counseling service for veterans, active duty service members and families, specializing in treating PTSD and other unseen wounds of war.

"Aaron doesn't normally come to the meetings," Stephanie said, "but he did that day. She (McCullah) spoke and Aaron went up to her and said, 'I lost my job at Bridgestone-Metalfa because of blackouts. I think I fit everything you explained,' and she said, 'Follow me.' That was May of 2012."

Counseling was an important step on the road to healing. Since then, additional understanding of Aaron's condition came about when the VA determined he had moderate to severe damage to the left side of his brain as the result of head trauma.

"He does pretty well maintaining, considering everything," Stephanie said.

As his healing progressed, Aaron looked for constructive ways to spend his time and took a position as a volunteer with the Austin Peay State University ROTC department. However, the position went away during the government shutdown in October.

Waiting to be called back, still wanting to volunteer somewhere, he thought that since he was pursuing a degree as a veterinary technician, it made sense to volunteer at a local animal shelter, and that's how he found Cats Are Us.

"Going over there to Cats Are Us while dealing with my own PTSD and seeing the need of these animals that had been abused, neglected and abandoned, and they're reaching out to you — literally reaching out to you, wanting attention despite all that they've been through.

"They just want love, and they want to love you back. And they accept you, no matter what.

"In research I've read, one of the first steps in healing for veterans is acceptance. Not a lot of people accept traumatized veterans in my experience, but animals want to help you, and you can help them. They'll love you with no conditions attached.

"I'm lucky. I have an amazing wife and daughter, but a lot of vets don't have that."

For Cats Are Us, Aaron has been a godsend. As much as the volunteers love and care for the animals at the no-kill shelter, the facility is beyond capacity, dilapidated and badly in need of repairs.

A talented carpenter and fix-it man, Aaron has made a lot of improvements in just a few months, but much more is needed. As he checked on the cats on Thursday morning, he pointed out how much more there was to do.

Aaron has an idea that is easy to grasp, and it comes from a widely accepted belief that he shares — that animals are great therapy for wounded warriors.

Why then, he wonders, wouldn't the reverse be true? That wounded warriors like himself could be therapeutic and a great help for abused and abandoned animals?

No one can understand damage the way someone can who is also damaged, he said.

"These abused and neglected animals have experienced about as much as any veteran, so there's an immediate connection. They both understand each other."

The idea — to pair wounded veterans with abandoned animals — is still in the formative stages and doesn't yet have a name or any organization behind it, but Aaron believes the time has come to take the next step.

McCullah of SAFE sees the potential, knowing how many of her veterans have carpentry and other skills, and Suzanne Harpel, director of Cats Are Us, is hopeful of getting a different kind of army mobilized in the fight for her animals and those at other shelters.

Right now, though, it is simply an idea, born of the love between a wounded veteran and a blind cat.

But in one Montgomery County home and in one Clarksville shelter, you can see its power and you can believe it will grow.

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