HARVARD – A city boy gripped by memories of war, Nick Montijo didn’t expect to find what was missing on a Northern Illinois farm.
But when a Veterans Affairs program brought him to Bravehearts Therapeutic Riding and Educational Center in Harvard two summers ago, it would help him rediscover something lost during his deployment in Afghanistan. With the horses, Montijo found peace.
“I was having some really bad days for awhile,” said Montijo, a Marine veteran who lives in Milwaukee. “The farm brings me some inner peace that I haven’t had forever.”
Earlier this month, less than two years since he first stepped foot at Bravehearts after knowing virtually nothing about horses, Montijo earned his certification to be a therapeutic riding instructor through Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International. A kid who only saw horses at state fairs has grown up to become a man who will pass along the animal’s healing nature to his veteran peers. Bravehearts, which also has a location in Poplar Grove, offers specialized horse therapy programs for veterans, among other programs.
For Montijo, it hasn’t been an easy road to this point.
Physically injured in Afghanistan in 2009, Montijo found himself hospitalized three years later for what became a tougher post-war demon – post-traumatic stress disorder.
At its worst, he struggled to get out of bed for weeks on end, isolating himself from friends and family. In 2012, he started a six-month hospital stay – two months as an inpatient and four more doing inpatient programming to reintegrate into society.
That summer, Montijo was introduced to Bravehearts during his visit with the Milwaukee VA. His paperwork had fallen through, so Montijo could only groom the horses and stand on the sidelines while some of his peers rode.
In April of last year, still struggling after his programming had expired, Montijo reached back out to Bravehearts. This time, he wanted to ride.
As he did, his anxiety slowly faded.
“I was so used to being up tight and constantly vigilant,” Montijo said. “Coming out here to the peaceful, calm atmosphere of the farm, I let my guard down.”
The relaxation is forced, at times. The horses sniff out Montijo’s mood. When he’s high-strung, they react accordingly. He has to stabilize, refocus.
“Nick honestly has a way with them,” said Jen Hazlewood, volunteer director at Bravehearts. “He is just a natural.”
The people at Bravehearts welcomed Montijo with open arms. In addition to his knack for dealing with the horses and desire to learn, the Milwaukee man has become a more-than-reliable presence, despite his long commute. Through April, he’d topped 225 volunteer hours for the year.
It’s a relationship Montijo says he could see growing into a full-time job. Hazlewood said Bravehearts is lucky to have him.
“I see so much potential here for Nick,” she said. “I think his future here at Bravehearts is going to be very good.”
Not too long ago, Hazlewood invited Montijo along to visit TLS Veterans in Hebron. She wanted him to give his personal account – where he’d been, where he was now, how he’d made it through the storm.
Hazlewood realized that night that she’d never heard the full story – from bed-ridden and haunted to this full, inspiring person, and so quickly.
“It was nothing short of a miracle to me,” she said. “He was wonderful in conveying that message that night. It touched so deeply.”
Montijo will have more chances to pass along his story. In addition to several other days a week, he’s been coming back on evenings the Milwaukee VA is around, helping a group to which he can relate that much more.
Of course, Montijo himself is still reaping the benefits of his new-found companionship. One positive change he didn’t anticipate: riding has strengthened his core, surprisingly soothing the back pain leftover from his 2009 injury.
“It’s remarkable how much riding horses has changed all the different aspects of my life,” he said.