Veterans group recalls man who found peace in equine program but couldn't overcome his troubles

Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer with the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services, or V.E.T.S., program spends a moment with Arran, a Clydesdale, during volunteer training day at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, April 14, 2018. The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer with the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services, or V.E.T.S., program spends a moment with Arran, a Clydesdale, during volunteer training day at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, April 14, 2018. The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36. (Tim Martin/The Day)

New London — At Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services, which provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges, Robert Porter, a volunteer for the program, took to the horses quickly.

Always willing to share what he learned, Porter also was willing to pitch in, even with "less glamorous" tasks like unloading hay or putting down manure, said Craig McCalister, 49, a retired Coast Guard chief petty officer who started the program.

Last Saturday, Porter was at the Horses Healing Humans' facility in Stonington, where V.E.T.S. runs its programming, helping out as usual. The next day, he was dead. He committed suicide in the backyard of a house belonging to a friend who’d invited him to come live with him about eight months ago after a previous suicide attempt. He was 36 years old.

On Wednesday, three friends recalled Porter and his efforts to overcome his problems.

Mundo Santillan, whom Porter lived with, first met him in 2000 while both men were serving in the Coast Guard in Florida.

"You couldn't stick him in a box. You couldn't label him or conform him," Santillan, 40, a chief electronics mate in the Coast Guard, said during an interview Wednesday. "But there was this light and truth about him that attracted people who could resonate with that."

Santillan transferred to another duty station, and Porter left the Coast Guard after a few years, but they stayed in touch. Whenever Santillan was in Florida, he made sure he saw Porter. It was during a 2016 visit when he learned that Porter had been hit by a car while riding his bicycle, which resulted in a traumatic brain injury and long recovery process, he said. Porter had a challenging upbringing, and the brain injury "brought all of that to the surface," Santillan said.

In late June 2017, Porter attempted suicide. After that, Santillan persuaded him to come to New London and live with him.

It started off well. Santillan helped Porter get health insurance through the state's Husky program. He got Porter prism glasses to help correct his double vision, which caused headaches and made it difficult for him to focus.

Porter was "very resistant to therapy" because he didn't want to be prescribed a bunch of pills, Santillan said. Still, he continually tried to convince Porter to talk to someone.

"I told him, 'If you want to become someone you've never been, you have to do something different,'" Santillan said.

He connected Porter to McCalister and the V.E.T.S. programs, where he started volunteering.

Since his death, people who met Porter or knew him have approached Santillan to share the impact he had on them. "I didn't know he touched so many people in a positive way," Santillan said.

Santillan and others who knew Porter describe him as a complicated guy. Given his difficult upbringing, he was guarded, but slowly would let in those whom he trusted. They said his Coast Guard service was not a big part of his identity. He loved music and going to concerts. He lived moment to moment. He had a different sense of humor that could be off-putting to those who didn't know him. He was a lover of conspiracy theories, and his stories were often entertaining.

"You never knew what story he was going to tell," said Thor Torgersen, 55, lead instructor for V.E.T.S.

Santillan noticed the positive impact the program had on his friend. "Sunday breakfasts were the best," he said, because Porter would be in a good mood and eager to talk.

The farm creates a positive, safe environment for those involved in the program, Torgersen said, noting that participants consider themselves part of a tribe.

"You kind of forget at the farm, when things are going well, how thin of ice that they're on," Torgersen said.

The numbers are staggering, he said, citing the statistic that about 22 veterans commit suicide each day. This year alone, Torgersen said, he's lost six friends who served in the military to suicide.

"We have a very small amount of time that we're with them and the rest of the time, unless they've gone out and are seeking help, they potentially are going to be by themselves," McCalister said.

The intention of the program isn't to try "to diagnosis or fix" the veterans but to provide a therapeutic experience, where they can spend a couple of quiet hours learning skills like horsemanship and socializing with those who may be experiencing similar difficulties.

In addition to the need to help veterans struggling with mental illness, McCalister said, often overlooked, or not talked about as much, is the strain placed on caregivers like Santillan, who step up to help these veterans, and the need to help them, as well.

"No way you can do it alone," McCalister said. Referring to Santillan, he said, "Even if it wasn't the win he was looking for, it was a very commendable effort."

V.E.T.S. is hosting a celebration of life service for Porter on Sunday at 6:30 p.m. at the farm, 340 New London Turnpike, Stonington. The event is open to the public.

j.bergman@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects that Robert Porter was hit by a car while riding his bicycle.

Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer in the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services program, assists in cleaning up horse manure on the grounds at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, March 24, 2018. The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36.  (Tim Martin/The Day)
Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer in the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services program, assists in cleaning up horse manure on the grounds at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, March 24, 2018. The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36. (Tim Martin/The Day)
Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer in the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services program, walks with Angel, a petite quarter horse pony mare, on the grounds at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, March 24, 2018.  The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36.  (Tim Martin/The Day)
Robert Porter of New London, a volunteer in the Veterans Equine Therapeutic Services program, walks with Angel, a petite quarter horse pony mare, on the grounds at the Horses Healing Humans facility in Stonington on Saturday, March 24, 2018. The organization provides equine-assisted programs to veterans with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. Porter served for several years in the Coast Guard. Despite his and his friends' efforts to get him help, Porter committed suicide Sunday, May 13, 2018, at the age of 36. (Tim Martin/The Day)

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