DADE CITY — Tice Ridley, a decorated U.S. war veteran, drew a deep, cleansing breath as he considered the view through large, floor-to-ceiling windows at the Circle of Veterans Ranch.
In the near distance, a pair of miniature horses, Shooter and Rikki, passed their time in the shade of a large tree, as Spirit, a mild-mannered Appaloosa, sauntered in the sun.
Nearby, a pair of alpacas looked around quizzically, as a slight breeze rippled through Spanish moss hanging from trees around their corral.
“This view,” Ridley said, “is what sold me on the place.”
Ridley hopes the ranch will be visited regularly by military veterans like himself, those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) — a place where veterans and their families can heal.
Ridley, 42, medically retired from the Army as a major in August 2014. He believes that the ranch’s serene scenes help him recover from PTSD, which took him to levels of despair he did not foresee.
At the nonprofit ranch, Ridley plans to work with veterans alongside a team of professionals: Gloria Payne, a licensed marriage and family therapist; Darlene Williams, a licensed clinical psychologist and certified hypnotherapist; Jennifer Turney, a licensed mental health counselor; and Chris Hrabovsky, a hypnotist who works with those afflicted with PTSD and anxiety disorders.
Turney and Williams are also certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy, which will also be offered at the 10-acre ranch, located down a winding, bumpy dirt road outside Dade City.
“Settings like this are extremely conducive for people to relax between counseling” sessions, Williams said. “We can do that here, and it’s easier for people to get to their issues (here) than in a clinical setting. They can decompress instead of just going right back into their lives.”
Among military veterans who served during wartime, PTSD is not rare. Its crushing symptoms can include alcohol and drug problems, anger and irritability, chronic pain, guilt, nightmares and reckless behavior.
In 2013, the Department of Veterans Affairs reported that 22 military veterans committed suicide every day from 1999 through 2011; however, those numbers include data from only 21 states.
Besides equine-assisted psychotherapy, the counselors and therapists also hope to use other nontraditional approaches, such as rapid-resolution therapy, yoga, breathing exercises and cinema therapy, which may feature movies that depict scenes similar to events that caused a veteran’s PTSD.
Payne, the marriage and family therapist, said rapid-resolution therapy does not require a person “to relive their trauma.” Rather, she is able to help them find positive aspects — and results — of the trauma they endured.
The equine program is about neither riding nor horsemanship, Williams said.
“It’s relational,” she said. “Horses are powerful because they’re herd animals. What happens with horses is similar to what can happen in a platoon. They have a leader. They’re prey animals. They’re also trauma survivors.”
Often, people don’t realize they are undergoing “therapy” while interacting with horses, she said. But, she said, their blood pressure and heart rates can change “in tune with the horse.”
“You can relax horses by grooming them, which can, in turn, train a person’s heart rate to” lower, Williams said. “You can see a significant shift in (someone’s heart rate) during and after working with horses.
“PTSD is a disconnect with the soul. People lose track with who they are. This therapy can help them reconnect with themselves. Once they do that, they’re more open to communicating with the people around them, but it all starts with that reconnect.”
Hrabovsky, the hypnotist, said his work can help transfer traumatic information “to the part of the brain that knows those (traumatic) incidents are no longer happening.”
It’s all part of what Ridley referred to as the ranch’s “holistic” approach to treating veterans and their families.
Much of the work done by therapists and counselors should be covered by insurance, Ridley said. But he added that finding insurance coverage for nontraditional therapies can be more challenging.
He is hopeful for passage of the COVER Act, a bill introduced last year by U.S. Rep. Gus Bilirakis, whose district includes all of Pasco and parts of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
The bill — officially called the Creating Options for Veterans Expedited Recovery Act — aims to establish a commission to examine therapies in treating mental illnesses among veterans “and the potential benefits of incorporating complementary alternative treatments available in non-Department of Veterans Affairs medical facilities within the community.”
The bill’s passage could be important, Ridley said, because “our program is broad, and (based on) individual needs, running the spectrum from conventional to holistic healing.”
“This is definitely not the one-size-fits-all model.”
Ian Martorana, Bilirakis’ communications director, said the bill could be voted on in a subcommittee this month.
“As for passage in the full House, that is far more up in the air,” Martorana said. “However, the COVER Act is one of the congressman’s top legislative priorities, and he has been actively engaging leadership ... to get this bill passed.”
Ridley hopes to spread information about the ranch through VA referrals, word-of-mouth advertising, participation in events such as last week’s “Give Day Tampa Bay” event — which raised money for nonprofits — and through veterans’ publications and organizations.
Ridley and his wife, Samantha, plan to support the ranch through income from rental properties, as well as fundraisers — such as biannual concerts at the ranch — donations and corporate sponsorships. Ridley said he also plans to seek grants.
A Chicago native, Tice Ridley was a highly-decorated soldier, but he won’t tell you that.
To learn that he earned a Bronze Star Medal, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and a Combat Action Badge, among a slew of other awards, you have to contact the Army’s Human Resources Command in Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Before he was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, Ridley worked what he called “a regular job,” as a criminal investigator for the Cook County Public Defender’s Office in Illinois.
He said he began noticing PTSD symptoms a few years ago, after a 2010 deployment to Afghanistan, where his job in a public affairs unit involved chronicling Taliban atrocities.
Speaking on the subject, Ridley’s voice grew quiet.
“They would bury people up to their head,” he said. “Then they would stone them to death in front of their children.”
He abruptly stopped speaking, took a pull from a vaporizer pen and paced. In a few moments, he composed himself with breathing exercises.
“After Afghanistan, I started having panic attacks,” he said. “It was about a year after I left. It was out of the blue. I would have these strong, involuntary muscle movements. I spoke with a therapist. I couldn’t believe it.”
Once, while driving through the Midwest, Ridley said he had a meltdown on an expressway.
“I was driving over a bridge, and I just froze,” he said. “I blocked both lanes of traffic so no one could get by me. I just freaked out. I was sweating profusely.”
At the time, Ridley was handling business related to rental property up north while Samantha, whom he met at MacDill Air Force Base, stayed in Florida with their son Noah, 6, and Christian Nattiel, Ridley’s stepson, who is studying at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
Although he professed love for his family, Ridley said that PTSD symptoms left him feeling that they would be “better off” without him. He said he sought treatment through the VA but was frustrated and concerned over his lack of progress.
“The Army’s way of dealing with it was to treat the symptoms, not the overall problem,” Ridley said. “Their one-size-fits-all treatment wasn’t working for me, or for a lot of people. They want you to relive what you endured and that’s ... ”
His voice trailed off and he shook his head.
During one six-month period, Ridley said, “the only emotion I felt was anger.”
Karen Collins, public affairs officer at James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital in Tampa, said the VA offers a variety of programs and services for PTSD sufferers, but she said not everyone responds to therapy the same way.
“VA is deeply committed to providing best-care practices for veterans who suffer from post-traumatic stress,” she said. “We spend time evaluating the needs of each individual patient and offer a range of treatments based on scientific research and evidence, including prolonged exposure therapy, cognitive processing therapy and eye-movement desensitization and processing therapy.
“We follow the standards and guidelines for both VA and the Department of Defense, the National Center for PTSD and the Institute of Medicine, which in 2009 reviewed all treatments for PTSD, and these were the ones most supported by the research and evidence.
“What’s important,” Collins added, “is that each individual gets the help they need to deal with PTSD in whatever fashion is necessary.”
Ridley only recently bought the ranch, so it has not had visitors seeking therapy. The property includes a refurbished 3,700-square-foot house where therapy sessions can be held and veterans and their families can relax.
“I want (to offer) a seven-day intensive treatment program,” Ridley said. “We’d like for it to be a national program and a model for this kind of program. Not many programs work with entire families.”
Veterans would not stay at the ranch, but Ridley said he has an agreement with a local hotel to offer tax-free stays for veterans.
Although Ridley said he has rediscovered his laugh and is able to play catch and joke with his kids, he said he still has “dark days.” “I’m depressed or angry and don’t know why, but something as simple as watching the baby goats trying to keep their balance on an overturned barrel in the backyard can lift the fog,” he said.
“My wife still has to warn me if she is behind me or before touching me. My startled response kicks in because I let someone get that close behind me without knowing it. In those times, I have to just step away and calm myself with breathing exercises.”
Samantha said that starting the ranch “gives him a purpose, which a lot of veterans need.”
“It’s just learning new ways to handle things,” she said.
Her husband nodded in agreement.
“When you retire from the military, it’s pretty abrupt,” Ridley said. “You lose your sense of purpose, your identity, your friends a lot of times. There’s a sense of loss. We need to create a community of our own.” Though Ridley is officially retired, he said the Army will always be part of him.
“I took an oath of office to take care of soldiers,” he said. “That didn’t change just because I retired.”