For some veterans, seeing a trash bag in the street can trigger post traumatic stress disorder, but a swim with dolphins on Friday reminded 10 of them that "they can still laugh," their program director, Fred Gusman, told ABCNews.com.
Gusman runs The Pathway Home, a nonprofit residential recovery program in Yountville, Calif. that's helped more than 300 combat veterans from 25 states get back on their feet. One of Pathway's volunteers recently swam with dolphins for her 90th birthday party and suggested bringing veterans to do it at Six Flags.
"It makes them think, you know, maybe there is life, maybe there are things to explore and maybe life is not all that bad," Gusman said. "I think it's life-lasting."
The 10 veterans who went on the trip all had PTSD or traumatic brain injuries. When they got to the park, they broke into small groups and learned from trainers how to interact with the dolphins before they came face-to-face with their new marine friends.
Charles Quigley, who served in the Army Infantry in Iraq said it took some coaxing to convince him to go on the trip.
"I didn't want to come, I wanted to isolate today," Quigley told KGO-TV, the San Francisco ABC station. "But getting out here, doing this, it's amazing. Really a joyful day."
The veterans splashed with the dolphins, gave them kisses and even got to hang onto their flippers and go for a ride. One even did a little dance with the dolphin.
Six flags donated the morning dolphin adventure to the veterans, Gusman said.
It can be hard for returning veterans to re-assimilate into their old lives, Gusman said. Even once they find jobs or get into school, it's difficult for them to stay there. He said they have a hard time relaxing after living in a state of constant vigilance for so long.
Being in the same place for 15 minutes can be difficult because not moving during combat would give away their position.
"They're looking for something to go wrong," Gusman said, estimating that 70 percent of the people he helps have suicidal thoughts. "They have this feeling about themselves, a heavy sense."
But not on Friday, when the sun was shining after a day of rain, and the dolphins were whistling and clicking at them.
"Learning how to relax and interact with the community in positive way," combat veteran Daniel Craig told KGO. "And learning how to be a civilian again, and you know, know that life's not all bad."
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