A Foundation of Trust Between a Horse and a Veteran
53 Years After He Returned from Vietnam, Charlie Ochoa Visits War Horses for Veterans
Charlie Ochoa joined the U.S. Army in 1968, one week after graduating from high school.
After his basic and advanced infantry training, Charlie volunteered to go to Airborne School and become a paratrooper. After 7 months of his initial assignment in Panama, Charlie volunteered for duty in Vietnam! Charlie arrived in Vietnam on August 6, 1969, just 4 days after his 20th birthday. He volunteered to become a member of the U.S. Army Rangers which consisted of three weeks of intensive physical training and classroom instruction. The Rangers were referred to as LP's, an all-volunteer unit. The Rangers were referred to as LRRP's, which stands for Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol.
Caption: Charlie Ochoa, 1969/ Vietnam.
The mission of the LRRP rangers was to perform reconnaissance patrols behind enemy lines utilizing 5 or 6 man teams. The team was typically inserted by helicopter and would spend 5 days in the jungle to locate and monitor enemy movement. They were the eyes and ears of the 1st Cavalry Division. After completing 12 months of patrols, with 34 missions, Charlie extended 6 more months in Vietnam to become the recruiter for his unit.
If you were to ask Charlie about one of his most memorable moments of his overseas duty he will tell you it was being elevated to the title of team leader. Being a team leader means you are in charge of the entire mission.
In his 33 months of serving in the U.S. Army, Charlie earned the Parachutist Badge stateside and was awarded the following in Vietnam; the Combat Infantry Badge, Air Medal, 3
Purple Hearts, and 2 Bronze Stars.
Charlie's wife, Beverly, is here at the Derby Party today. They have two daughters and 5 grandchildren.
Charlie’s first visit to War Horses was in 2018. He came through the program again in 2022.
In Charlie's Words
The following is a copy of Charlie's speech delivered at the War Horses for Veteran's annual fundraiser, The Derby Party, Saturday, May 6, 2023.
When I was asked to prepare some brief comments to share with you today, I felt very honored.
So let’s get started. I would like to focus on a few areas so let me mention these at this time.
First, I want to share a story with you about one of the great war horses in history.
Second, discuss my challenge to assimilate into society after my service in Vietnam.
Third, my experience of two visits to War Horses For Veterans, September of 2018 and August of 2022.
Finally, some general comments and observations regarding War Horses for Veterans.
Some of my comments relate to the sun literally and figuratively.
The sun plays an important role when I next discuss with you a Great War Horse of the past. Today, like no other, presents an opportunity to pay tribute and recognize these beautiful and majestic creatures that weigh between 900-1100LBS. This afternoon we crowned a Kentucky Derby winner and awarded the red roses as a symbol of achievement. In addition, we are gathered in the very arena where horse and rider build trust and share their spirit.
So now our story. Legend has it that Alexander the Great noticed this beautiful black horse
with a white star on its face being trained. The problem was that the trainers were unsuccessful in riding this horse that would later be called Bucephalus. Not even Alexander’s father, King Philip II, could ride Bucephalus. Alexander the Great discovered that Bucephalus was afraid of his shadow. He climbed on his back by turning him towards the sun and that became the foundation of trust between horse and rider. Alexander the Great rode Bucephalus for many years into battles. Unfortunately, Bucephalus died in 326 BC in the battle of the Hydaspes River. The devotion Bucephalus had for his owner was such that the cities of Bucephalia and Phalia were named in his honor. Facing the sun was a major factor for Bucephalus to overcome fear. I feel certain that many of you can relate to Bucephalus and you have your own story. I also have my story that I will share with you now.
This brings me to my second point in our discussion and my personal challenge related to my assimilation into society after my Vietnam Service. After 33 months in the U.S. Army, of which my last 18 months were in Vietnam, I was honorably discharged in March 1971 from the military. We all know that war is horrific. There is no other way I can describe it. When I returned home from Vietnam, my parents, other family members, friends, and my girlfriend Beverly were as happy to see me as I was to see them. The war seemed so far away. But little did I know what was about to happen. After my first week home my girlfriend and I were sitting with my parents in their living room with the TV on in the background. Suddenly there was a pause in our discussion and the CBS newscaster, Walter Cronkite said, “and today the U S suffered moderate loses in Vietnam.” All of a sudden I felt like my body was imploding from a shockwave of sadness. My stomach felt like it was twisted. I cradled my face in my hands and started crying. I was embarrassed and ashamed. I just wanted to crawl into a hole. I knew at that very moment something was very wrong with me but I did know what it was. As I tried to compose myself, I first looked at my mother’s face and it expressed a combination of shock and disbelief. I knew exactly what she was thinking by the look on her face. WHAT HAVE THEY DONE TO MY SON? My dad appeared confused. I thought my girlfriend was going to bolt from the living room like a scared rabbit. Instead, she sat there quietly. We all did our best to forget that day and it was never discussed. Looking back I reasoned that I was experiencing Survivor’s Guilt. I felt as if I had abandoned my Vietnam buddies.
I was much like Bucephalus being afraid of his shadow. I use this example as the best way I know to describe my situation.
I tried to ignore things like post-traumatic stress disorder, hypervigilance, and survivor's guilt with limited success. In 2004 I finally swallowed my pride and sought counseling. Today, things are manageable resulting in hope and optimism. I recall a clinical psychologist asking me a very profound question. “Charlie, what do you do to energize ?” I stared at him and I felt like a deer caught in the headlights. I have since made it a priority to review past energizing events/activities and look to the future for additional positives. While military service may not be for everyone, and I certainly respect everyone’s personal decision, It was my choice. So I really can not complain. I was the one that seemed to volunteer for everything.
And Yes,! I would do it again!
This brings me to my third point which is my experience with War Horses For Veterans. There were an average of 8 combat veterans on my two visits. Of the 8 veteran guests, 5 of
us served together in Vietnam and have kept in touch for the past 53 years. During our visit here It was as if we were 20 years old again. Laughing, joking, interspersed with some moments of seriousness. Working with the horses was a very unique experience. I found the horses to be well trained, intelligent, and very sensitive to humans. Imagine all this in an environment that is judgment free and more importantly what I call a safe zone. The icing on the cake was a friendly staff of mostly combat veterans and first responders committed to making our experience a great one. There is one major impression that I took with me after my 2 visits to this organization. It all boils down to this. I came away with a sense that there are people in our great country that care about our veterans and first responders. To put this in perspective, our country was divided during the Vietnam War. There were protests across the United States and soldiers returning home were disrespected both verbally and physically at airports as they headed home. I point this out, not to argue the merits of the war, but to compare the environment during the Vietnam War as compared to today. During my 29 year career at AT&T, there were only about 5 people that knew I was a Vietnam veteran. Many learned after I retired, from AT&T through Facebook, about my military service. I just felt uncomfortable speaking about it. Now you can better understand the difference between a Vietnam veteran coming home 53 years ago to a divided country compared to visiting and being a part of a completely different environment here at WHFV. It can be difficult to comprehend.
Finally, a few words about my observations and experiences during my two visits to War Horses. They say if you look at life as a compass, one-degree difference in direction will place you at a different destination. That is how I feel about War Horses For Veterans. It turned me ever so slightly one or two degrees toward the sun resulting in a positive impact for me as a person. A college professor once told me, “when it comes to change, it’s not always about quantum leaps, sometimes it’s about incremental changes.”
One of my favorite songs is “What a Wonderful World” by Louie Armstrong.
You may recall some of the lyrics go like this:
The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces
Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands
Saying how do you do
They’re really saying
I love you
So these lyrics bring several things to mind.
This embodies what America is all about. It personifies our freedom as Americans and today (HAND GESTURE “NOW”) is a prime example. Our military is always on call ready to preserve those freedoms via the battlefield while our first responders are on call 24/7 to protect our cities and keep us safe.
I recently came across a quote I want to share with you. “Any nation that does not honor its heroes will not long endure.” President Abraham Lincoln
War Horses, is committed, passionate, and dedicated to serving those that answered the call. The culture that encompasses these attributes starts at the top with the founders. It trickles down the organization like the proverbial drop of ink in the pool of water.
It is my belief, if you want to know what an organization wants to be, read their mission statement. If you want to know what an organization is, study their culture. If you do this then you can answer that ever-important question: Do they walk the talk? In this case here today, it is a resounding yes. Please let me explain.
There were major structural additions to these premises since my first visit. The large indoor arena added a special dimension in allowing events to continue without weather being a factor. Also, the meeting area allows people to share information in a state-of-the-art environment. The backdrop of peace and tranquility adds a valuable element. I believe that the difference between good organizations and excellent ones lie within a few factors. Good organizations want to improve. Excellent organizations constantly perform a 360-degree assessment of what is working and what is not. They are always asking, how can we improve and how can we collaborate externally to foster new ideas of innovation for future direction. These are things I have learned by observing and listening that makes WAR HORSES unique.
In a nutshell, what we have here is a dichotomy within an organization with two distinct personas. One strives for organizational development, execution, and vision while the other exhibits qualities of empathy, compassion, and kindness. From my perspective, it is their search for the vision of the future is what I think will take WAR Horses to the next level. To put it succinctly, War Horses For Veterans is on track to become the leader and role model for other similar organizations to emulate. These are my HEREOS. After all, the area in and around Kansas City is a factory of champions. Look no further than the Super Bowl Champs, the Kansas City Chiefs.
And remember, always remember to face the sun."
We, at War Horses for Veterans, are extremely grateful Charlie and his wife Beverly were able to attend the Derby Party this year. We are also happy to share Charlie's speech and testimony of his experiences at War Horses with you in this blog article.
It is the unwavering commitment and generosity of our supporters that have allowed us to continue our important work, helping those in need and making a positive impact in our community. We could not do what we do without that support, and we are truly grateful for each and every one of you.
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