MELROSE, Fla. (WFLA) — A couple hours north of Tampa, a rural road brings you a world away from city noises to tranquility that is helping veterans try to heal their trauma.
Soldiers Freedom Outdoors offers seemingly simple treatment for the complex issues of post traumatic stress disorder. PTSD impacts thousands of Floridians who are diagnosed, and thousands more who are not.
According to VA data, 7% of Veterans have PTSD. But one survey indicates nearly half the soldiers from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have symptoms of the disorder and other mental health issues do not seek treatment.
Navy veteran Josh Datka said the hidden wounds of PTSD are usually revealed somewhat slowly during the four-day retreat.
“As they talk, the more you hear it,” Datka said. “They get to dark places sometimes.”
Some who come to the camp served as far back as Vietnam, when veterans were not always welcomed home.
Scott Krueger was stateside during that war, but he remembers how other Vietnam veterans were treated.
“These boys committed their life to their country and to come home to get spit on,” Krueger said. “Heart wrenching.”
At Soldiers Freedom Outdoors, life is no louder than a rooster’s wakeup call or a day in the blacksmith shop.
It is as calming as a horseback ride and wetting a hook on the pond in the middle of the wooded property.
It is the opposite of war.
“Absolutely,” Army veteran Jason Bucy said. “100 percent.”
Bucy was a warrior who lost friends, faced death, but made it home, only to face new struggles.
“And some of these are,” Bucy said, fighting his emotions. “Sorry. Sometimes it’s life changing.”
The camp changed Bucy’s life despite his admitted reluctance.
“And I said, I don’t need your doggone retreat,” Bucy recalled saying when approached by the retreat founder. “I don’t need it.”
Bucy, now a Soldiers Freedom board member, said even veterans without PTSD have trouble fitting in after they leave the camaraderie and purpose of active duty.
“The hardest thing about being a veteran is becoming a civilian,” Bucy said. “The structure is gone.”
For those with PTSD, their hidden scars complicate that.
Bucy said the free of charge, non-profit camp showed him what it has also taught hundreds of others.
“It’s not something that can’t be fixed,” Bucy said. “You just need to learn what the triggers are and cope with it.”
Several veterans at Soldiers Freedom said they are more likely to open up to other veterans.
The stories they share can be jaw-dropping.
“He had his weapon in his hand and he was going to take his own life,” Bucy said, referring to an Army Ranger. “Then, his little boy came in his room.”
“And said, ‘Dad, you were going to take me to the zoo today?’ ”
Veteran Jon Jackson took his son to the zoo.
Then, he took himself to Soldiers Freedom where Bucy said he discovered motivation to open his own retreat in Georgia.
“It made him such an open individual to his own plight that he knows he can help others,” Bucy said.
Results are difficult to imagine when the veterans arrive.
“They stand just like this,” Bucy said, his body stiff. “Nobody talks. Nobody says anything.”
But four days later, the barriers are broken and bonds are made.
Bucy and the volunteers who keep Soldiers Freedom humming said veterans leave knowing they built a corps of friends who will help.
“Somebody’s in crisis, everybody knows. They say ‘Look, that guy needs help,’ ” Bucy said. “We’re going to help him. We’re saving lives because this place is changing lives.”