According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 – 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Some 68,000 veterans live in Lee County alone, and that number is expected to increase as more soldiers return home in the coming years. With long wait times for appointments at the VA, finding the necessary psychiatric help poses a challenge for many. One North Fort Myers couple is looking to provide another avenue for treatment through therapy with horses.
Keith and Gail Doxie opened Miles Ranch in North Fort Myers on Veterans Day 2013. The rural 20 acre site has become a haven for local veterans looking for help in dealing with trauma induced PTSD through therapy with horses. The treatment, known as Equine Assisted Therapy or EAT is growing in acceptance, but is still considered experimental. Gail is a licensed mental health counselor. She says sometimes the vets ride the horses, but that’s not technically part of the treatment. “The therapy itself involves doing exercises with the horses and perhaps building certain obstacles; things that they want to get around, get over or get through and it will be a metaphor for what they’re experiencing in life.”
With Gail as the therapist and her husband acting as horse handler, she says they mostly don’t interfere; but instead, observe the veteran working with the horse and trying to manipulate the massive animals’ movements. Watching veterans interact with the horses can tell Gail more about what her patients are feeling than in a traditional talk therapy session. “They don’t really have to verbalize if they’re angry or if they’re upset or even fearful. You can see it,” said Gail. “So it’s much easier for a therapist to be able to work with them rather than sitting and asking questions that they’re not comfortable with.”
Horses, particularly skittish ones, are ideal for this type of therapy. “Horses are hyper vigilant because they’re prey animals,” said Gail.” So, they kind of have the startle response. They’re very sensitive in nature so they’re going to be able to mimic, per say, people who have post-traumatic stress disorder.”
U.S. Army Staff Sargent and Purple Heart recipient, Robert Miniaci is one of the handful of vets who visit Miles Ranch for EAT treatment. He first discovered the ranch about a year ago as a way to get community service hours as a student at Florida Gulf Coast University and says he fell in love with the ranch immediately. For the 32-year old Iraq war veteran, working with the horses helps harness another form of communication.
“No matter what you say to them, they’d don’t understand. So you have to learn to control your gestures and that’s one of the things you have to relearn,” said Miniaci. Having post-traumatic stress disorder, one of the things that kind of can come with it is getting frustrated really easily or getting angry real easily or getting anxious and you can’t do that with the horses. You have to be calm.”
Miniaci says he’s learned to approach the horses the way he’d like others to approach him.
“Don’t come yelling at me. Come walk up to me nice and calm and that’s the way we have to do it with the horses. It’s like retraining yourself how to be around people through an animal.”
Miniaci was deployed to Iraq in March 2007 where he was tasked with one of the most dangerous jobs. “I was doing what is called route clearance,” said Miniaci. “Clearing the roads for the infantry behind us. So we would go out and look for roadside bombs. So while everyone else was trying to avoid them, we were out there looking for them. It’s not the most easy job. And unfortunately the best way to find them is when they blow up next to you.”
Miniaci lost count of the number of IED explosions he experienced. “It was almost daily. So there was no point in keeping track,” said Miniaci. “With us, every time we were out, which was every day, something happened.”
Then, just four months into his deployment, Miniaci took a sniper bullet to his right leg.
“That was starting to become very popular; shooting guys in the legs,” said Miniaci. “Snipers were shooting guys in the leg because if you shoot a guy in the head, he’s dead, but if you shoot a guy in the leg, three more people have to help him so you have three more targets.”
Miniaci’s sniper wound still causes him pain, but it was the PTSD diagnosis that kept him from returning to the Army. Upon coming home his marriage fell apart, and he spent several years following his ex-wife around the country so he could be close to their baby daughter, Carmen. One of his biggest challenges to handling PTSD and transitioning to civilian life was an overwhelming sense of worthlessness.
“I went from being the guy in charge who was the leader of these men to now, I can’t get a job,” said Miniaci. “I had one job in the past six years and it was delivering pizza. And I couldn’t even do that because I got frustrated one day and flew off the handle.”
The EAT and even just working on the ranch has helped him overcome that sense of not having a purpose. “When I come out here, I never have that feeling,” said Miniaci. “They let me come in and help build. And I was pretty much hooked that day because I loved what was going on. I loved what they had planned and just getting to come out here. There’s no judgment. And getting to do some work; have a purpose again. It felt great.”
Just as Miles Ranch helps veterans overcome personal trauma, the inspiration for the ranch itself was born out of personal tragedy. Both Keith and Gail Doxie come from families with long histories of military service. Following in his father’s footsteps, Keith and Gail’s son Miles decided to join the Airforce at the age of 17. But just weeks before he was to enter basic training in 2006, Miles was killed in a car accident.
“We were searching for something that would pay homage to him and he has Marshall his horse and he used to go out to the horse when he needed to collect his thoughts,” said Keith. “And it was a good thing for him. So, we know it always made him feel good.”
That’s what led Keith and Gail to begin an equine assisted therapy program.
“When he went off, (Miles) or was going to go off, we figured that he either would come back maybe suffering. He was a pretty sensitive person,” said Keith. “Maybe something might affect him and he might be in this situation or he might have a friend in this situation and we know that he would like to help, so this is what we did.”
The next year, Keith and Gail Doxie began the Miles of Smiles Foundation to kick off their effort of providing equine assisted therapy to veterans free of charge. The program’s been largely self-funded by the Doxies so far. Gail additionally works as a licensed mental health counselor and real estate agent while Keith is a full time school teacher.
Right now, the Doxie’s use their son Miles’ horse Marshall and a donated quarter horse named Zip, but eventually with more community support, they hope to house up to ten horses at the ranch for therapy. Right now, though, Tricare doesn’t reimburse for EAT.
“It is considered experimental and there are lots of studies now for the evidence-based treatment of it,” said Gail. “I think pretty soon, it will be widely recognized with the insurance companies.”
Meanwhile Iraq war vet Minaici says he’s living full-time with his daughter, now six, and they’ve both come to love working with horses.