Published: 10.29.2006
War wiped out her memory
Weekly horseback therapy helps ease agony from truck collision in Iraq
By Carol Ann Alaimo

For more information
● To learn more about volunteering with TROT's veterans program or making a donation, call 749-2360.

Army Spc. Claudia Carreon has a 2-year-old daughter, but cannot remember being pregnant or giving birth.
She has two brothers and two sisters, but doesn't know who they are without nametags.
She sometimes can't recall what she ate for breakfast, or where she put things when she cleaned up.
"My mother found the toaster in the refrigerator," said Carreon, 32, an Iraq War veteran left with a brain injury that wiped her memory clean.
The Tucson woman now lives in a discombobulated world, where conversations often don't make sense, hallucinations come without warning and relationships must be reconstructed daily from videos and photo albums.
There are some bonds that can't be mended. Carreon said she and her husband of three years are divorcing.
But, for a few hours a week, the wounded soldier's troubles seem to melt away at a ranch on the Northeast Side.
Carreon is one of the first participants in a new horseback riding program for sick and injured veterans, said to be one of a few of its kind in the nation.
The program was set up recently by Therapeutic Riding of Tucson, also known as TROT, a local nonprofit that's been helping people with disabilities for three decades.
TROT's usual clients are people with autism, hearing or vision loss, Down syndrome or spinal-cord injuries. The request for a veterans program came from staffers at the Southern Arizona VA Health Care System, and is being funded by private donations, said Mary Vardi, the agency's program director.
Vardi said she lived in Israel for 20 years and ran a riding program there that included Israeli soldiers wounded in bomb attacks.
Veterans get physical and psychological benefits from horseback riding, she said.
They improve their balance and muscle tone and gain confidence that comes from accomplishment.
The horse's gait is comforting, like the rhythm of a heartbeat. And to Vardi, the beasts exude compassion, sensing the need to be gentle with the troubled souls in the saddle.
"There is a magic in these animals, and I feel privileged to witness it," Vardi said.
"To see the bond that develops between the horses and riders is really incredible."
Carreon clearly is smitten with Thunder, a 25-year-old gray speckled quarter horse.
"You're a good boy. You're beautiful," she murmured, kissing him on the forehead and leaving a lipstick mark on his brow after a riding session on Friday morning.
Up in the saddle, surrounded by mesquite trees and mountains, "I feel happy and relaxed," Carreon said.
"It's a great feeling to be able to do something I was told I'd never be able to do."
Small triumphs are now a big deal now to Carreon, who has had to reinvent herself in ways that are hard to imagine for those not in her shoes.
A native of Nogales, Sonora, Carreon joined the Army National Guard in 2000, the same year she obtained U.S. citizenship.
She doesn't remember joining the military. Her mother told her she did it "because I wanted to say thank you to the country that gave me an opportunity to be here," Carreon said.
By June 2003, she was in Iraq with the Guard's 2222nd Transportation Company, working on fuel-transportation convoys.
She was injured in a head-on collision between an Iraqi truck and an Army vehicle, she said.
When she awoke, her world began to come unglued. Without memory, friends and relatives seemed like foreigners.
She's been absent for much of her daughter's short life, with long stretches spent at a veterans hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., that specializes in treating troops whose brain wiring has been scrambled by bomb blasts or accidents overseas.
"There was a little girl who called me Mommy. But I didn't feel the love that a mother has for her child," said Carreon, who has since managed to reclaim some connection to daughter Sandra by studying photo albums and watching home movies of the tot.
Carreon, who lives with her mother and daughter on Tucson's South Side — she is not able to parent her child alone — now documents in writing or on videotape everything her youngster does. Otherwise, she said, she won't be able to recall her daughter's early years as time passes.
"The notes and the pictures, those are my memory. When I look back, that's how I can tell what's real."
To help her recall who her siblings are, Carreon writes their names on family photos and keeps them on her nightstand, scanning them each evening before bed to see which names and faces go together.
Carreon is still a member of the military — now attached to a medical-hold Army Reserve unit in Washington state.
A panel soon will review her case to see if she should be discharged, she said.
Besides memory loss, she has other problems: fainting spells that have robbed her of the ability to drive and hallucinations that startle her. She'll see someone creeping down the stairs or people darting in front of moving vehicles — when there's actually no one there.
"It's difficult, but you have to be positive and learn how to live with this," Carreon said. "You have to go forward and go on."
Vardi, TROT's program director, said that six weeks into the riding program, she's already seeing progress in Carreon's cognitive abilities.
"Claudia seems very happy on the horse, and it does seem to be helping with her memory skills," Vardi said.
For example, she said, Carreon now is able to remember from week to week the riding instructions she received in earlier sessions.
Rene Suarez, a 31-year-old Navy veteran who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis and also is in the new riding program, said it's easy for people who are sick or disabled to get depressed and lie around all day.
Horseback riding keeps veterans connected to the community by getting them out of the house for fresh air and fun, he said.
"If you start feeling down about yourself and your condition, you tend to withdraw. This forces you to be around people, and that in itself is a big boost."