ASTORIA — When Elsa Nethercot first stepped through the entrance of Jesse Smith's Colorado ranch last winter, she wasn't sure what to expect. Self-confidence wasn't her strong suit, and she was about to start five weeks of intensive classes in saddle-making — a difficult, technical craft requiring steady hands, patience and a willingness to fail.
It would be something both new and old for Nethercot: old because she'd tried her hand at saddle making more than two decades before; new because the saddle-making class would ultimately become a very different type of therapy for her.
The Astoria resident, three years retired from the U.S. Coast Guard, had been coping with depression and anxiety for years.
Smith, a saddle maker and instructor by trade, hadn't seen Nethercot for more than 25 years, when he taught her at Washington's Spokane Falls Community College. She seemed different then, he remembers — a little more "interested in boys," perhaps, than she was on crafting a saddle.
But when she came to his workshop, carrying herself with focused energy, she seemed driven to build something for herself and for her horse Spirit, whose image she planned to imprint on the saddle's leather.
Nethercot's focus came from the reason she was at the ranch in the first place: For her, designing and building a saddle would be a form of what's known as "recreational therapy," where activities and hobbies are used to keep people focused on positive thinking.
Nethercot suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But as she tells it: Her PTSD didn't come from a bullet or an improvised explosive device, it came from sexual trauma. While in the Coast Guard, she was sexually assaulted twice.
The first assault happened during boot camp. Afterward, Nethercot said the alleged assailant turned and said, "You're just a reservist. You don't matter anyway." She still remembers the words and the impact they had on her. She left community college in 1983, a quarter short of graduating, to join the Coast Guard full time.
"I ended up putting my saddle-making dreams on hold," Nethercot says. What followed was a 20-plus-year career full of ups and downs — a period when she found herself shrinking from a world in which she felt she didn't belong. She developed unhealthy coping mechanisms to deal with the harassment and assaults that left her with low self-esteem.
In 2004, Nethercot said she was assaulted again while on leave from the Coast Guard. The attack left her feeling numb. At the time, her superiors tried to help, but said there was little they could do.
"When I finally retired in 2007, I started thinking about saddle-making again," Nethercot says.
Through the process of building a saddle, she discovered a therapeutic outlet that helped her gain self-confidence and a sense of acceptance. Her work reached a point of culmination in late October, when Nethercot's saddle took home a gold medal in the applied art mixed-media category at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival in Fayetteville, Ark. The event is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Smith was impressed by Nethercot's work and her desire to learn. An Air Force veteran himself, he became aware of Nethercot's past while mentoring her. Semi-retired, Smith takes one student at a time. Over the years, many of those students have been veterans who have suffered from military trauma.
"It's hard to explain how to do it," he says. "But it's a really important thing, if you can help people with their mental attitude and be an influence."
Smith says he's not surprised his protege won first place.
Her work was nice and clean. The leather carving was careful and precise. She practiced it three to four times a day "to work the bugs out," he says, and that takes dedication. The craft consumed her in a way he didn't remember when he was teaching her in Spokane.
"Mentally, she just she came in more ready to concentrate on what she was doing," Smith said.
Nethercot never felt accepted by veterans from other branches of military service. But that changed when she attended the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival to pick up her prize. Traveling across the country to show off her artwork — one of only 100 veterans invited to display their artwork, and the only one from the Coast Guard — forced her out of her comfort zone.
"Being in the Coast Guard, you always feel like you're on the outside looking in when it comes to being a veteran," Nethercot says. "A lot of vets don't consider the Coast Guard a military service, and we are. So I just always felt like I never belonged, like I didn't earn it and I didn't matter."
So when it was time to take the stage and explain what led her to make her piece of art, Nethercot shared her story. Apprehensive at first, she explained every detail.
And then it happened: She started crying — not uncommon, she says, but this was in front of 300 fellow retired service members who attended.
They showed an outpouring of support for her. Veterans from different branches and different wars approached and embraced her. They called her their sister. They said she belonged and mattered.
They hugged her. And though her PTSD typically prohibits that sort of physical display, she embraced them back.
For the first time in a long while, Nethercot felt proud to be representing the Coast Guard, an organization she continues to love, and receiving the support and acceptance of hundreds of fellow veterans.
"To travel and be with all these veterans — and we're all so creative — was the most amazing experience of my life," Nethercot says. "It was absolutely unreal."
Nethercot isn't alone with her PTSD. Psychological studies indicate that women serving in the military are more predisposed to developing the disorder than men, even though they're barred from serving in combat.
One 2006 study published in Military Medicine showed that 71 percent of female veterans seeking VA benefits cited that they suffered from PTSD because of some form of sexual assault.
Candis Sollars, an Astoria social worker who specializes in assisting veterans, says there's been a change in recent years, with more veterans coming forward asking for help. "Before recently, PTSD was all very hush-hush," Sollars said, adding that she's seen an increase in PTSD cases recently. "Now, there isn't as much stigma to come forward."
She cautions that recreational therapy isn't a cure-all. Nonetheless, she's seen it have a beneficial impact on her patients.
Vince Morrison, an Astoria-based clinical social worker, has worked with Nethercot for more than five years. He says he's seen a drastic shift in her mental outlook since she started her recreational therapy routine.
"It's great for her well-being, her creativity. And it's doing wonders for her self-esteem," he says.
Nethercot says she plans to continue making saddles. It's an expensive hobby, she says, but well worth the time and money for her state of mind.
Knowing how prevalent PTSD is, and how stifling it can be, she says she hopes others get help in the way she did.
"I would love to see more people get involved with recreational therapy," Nethercot says. "I wish someone had told me I'd be great for the recreational program."