A year ago, Gail Doxie led a 24-year-old veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan into a meadow at her Fort Myers, Fla., ranch. She pointed out a group of horses and asked the young man to choose the horse that most resembled him before he was deployed, the one that resembles him now, and the one he would most like to be.
He first chose a young horse that kept flying happily over a fence, the one that was running and playing—that horse was just like him before he went to war. Then he picked the horse that was biting all the other horses and pushing them away as the horse that most resembles him today. For his third choice, the vet chose a horse way out in the pasture, munching on grass with another horse. “He told me that’s what he wants,” Doxie says. “He wants peace.”
In 2006, Doxie’s 17-year-old son, Miles, died in an automobile accident two weeks before he was to leave for Air Force basic training. In her grief, Doxie, took over the care for her son’s beloved horse, Marshall. She quickly realized that Marshall might grant both a coping mechanism for her and a way to help others who are suffering. Since then, Doxie has been focused on providing tormented veterans and their families some peace. She went back to school to get her master’s degree in mental health counseling. She also received certifications in equine-assisted psychotherapy.
In 2007, Doxie and her husband, Keith, opened Miles of Smiles, a 20-acre, eco-friendly ranch that offers free equine therapy to veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and to their families. While vets often have to wait eight to 10 weeks to see a therapist at the Veterans Health Administration, Doxie makes sure they receive weekly sessions as soon as they need it. “One case I’m now seeing had been admitted twice for attempted suicide,” she says. “He was released and given an appointment for 45 days after his release from the hospital.” Fortunately, he called Doxie—and was able to meet with her less than 48 hours later. Otherwise, she says, “he wouldn’t have survived.”
As a licensed mental health counselor, Doxie volunteers more than 25 hours a week at the ranch, while still engaged in her 26-year career in real estate. She works with approximately 15 veterans at a time throughout the year, at no charge (the VHA pays for none of the veterans’ therapy at the ranch). Through fundraisers, she has raised $40,000 for the Miles of Smiles Foundation in addition to her personal contribution. The Foundation now owns two horses and borrows several from other farms. Doxie has diligently recruited volunteers from the community, including college students and veterans, to build fences and stables and to donate materials. Among others, former and current patients volunteer to care for the horses. Doxie hopes that the ranch will eventually be able to hire more mental health counselors and a physical therapist for disabled vets and acquire additional therapy horses.
Ann Arnall, the director of Lee County Human Services, says Doxie’s work in the area is “cutting edge.” She says the demand for a program like hers is tremendous given southwest Florida’s large veteran population of roughly 128,000 that ranges from older veterans of the Korean and Vietnam wars to those who’ve recently come back from Iraq and Afghanistan. “Our mental health resources are limited, and Gail is certainly filling a void,” Arnall says, adding that Doxie provides much more than a strictly timed, sterile office visit. “She is not just there for counseling—she will do whatever it takes to help.”
Sgt. Robert Miniaci, a Purple Heart recipient who returned from Iraq in 2008, agrees. Suffering from severe PTSD after being shot in the leg while working route clearance, the Cape Coral resident says he used to spend days locked inside his apartment, too afraid to even drive to the grocery store. “Nothing felt safe,” he says. “With the route clearances I went through, driving was a big problem because everything looks like an IED [improvised explosive device or homemade bomb] in Iraq, even a plastic bag on the side of the road.”
He tried counseling at the VHA, but wasn’t getting enough attention. Once his therapist had to reschedule and he went six months between appointments. Finally, he made his way to Miles of Smiles. “The first time I talked to Gail as a patient, I talked for hours and she just listened,” he says. “It was the greatest thing. I know she already worked two jobs that day. I arrived at 6 p.m. that night, and I left around 9:30. She said we’re going to work together and make my life easier to live.”
Miniaci, 32, says he’s encouraged to visit the ranch any time he needs quiet moments. The single father brings his six-year-old daughter there as a safe, crowd-free place to bond with her. In addition, Doxie has given him unpaid jobs, such as helping coordinate volunteers. “I have a purpose again,” he says. “When I was a squad leader with men who depended on me, I had a purpose. But then I was injured, and I had no reason [to live]. Now, with the ranch, I have something to give my life to.”
While nothing will ever bring Miles back, helping people like him is something Doxie believes would have made him very happy. “It’s an expensive program to run,” she says simply, adding that the ranch is in desperate of a few basic supplies like a tractor, round pen, and covered arena. “But we’re giving back.”
She reflects upon a breakthrough she had with the 24-year-old Iraq vet mentioned earlier who was dealing with extreme anger and frustration after losing a buddy to friendly fire. When she asked him to run a horse through a series of obstacles, she told him he could not pull, push, or otherwise touch the horse physically but that he should be creative about using resources in the meadow to help him get the horse to do his bidding. He struggled for hours before finally looking around and seeing a team of volunteers watching him. “He started crying because he realized he never asked for help,” she says. “Now he knows that even if he’s aggravated and angry and doesn’t want to be there, if he asks for help, people will help him.”
That young man is now thriving in college. “This is what Miles would have wanted,” Doxie says.