Life

Travis Harvey’s Journey

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From PTSD to Equine Therapy

For veterans and individuals facing physical and mental disabilities, the road to living a “normal” life can be difficult. But non-traditional therapies provide options beyond medication and one-on- one therapy.

Travis Harvey is the Executive Director of Horses Helping People, a nonprofit organization in Archer, Florida that offers equine-assisted therapy enrichment for individuals with disabilities. Harvey has first-hand experience in dealing with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after his time serving in the Army in The Iraq War.

Graduating from high school in Jamestown, New York, Harvey went straight into military life by joining the Air Force. He wanted to be in a Special Forces group called Pararescue, which helps rescue and recover downed aircrews in hostile or unreachable areas.

His dream of joining Pararescue didn’t come true, but he didn’t want to leave the military behind. He said it was the sense of family and camaraderie that led him to join the New York Army National Guard in 1996 and then the Florida National Guard in 1999.

Then, as a result of the terrorist attacks on September 11, Harvey was called into active duty in 2002.

“Over there, you just feel like you’re doing your job,” he said. And when asked how many tours he served, Harvey laughed and replied, “Just one. That was enough.”

Harvey’s daughter, Alexa, was born on June 19, 2003, while he was in Iraq. He remembers wanting and praying desperately to just be back at home with his family.

“You have to be careful what you wish for,” he said.

On July 15, 2003, his base was attacked. Mortar shrapnel ripped through both of his legs and left arm, severing his right femoral artery and shattering his left femur. “My daughter was my will to live,” he said. “She was three and a half weeks old when I was hit.”

He was stabilized in Iraq, flown to Landstuhl, Germany, and then flown back to the states, where he underwent numerous surgeries and spent 18 months rehabilitating at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center in Fort Gordon, Georgia.

After serving in Iraq for less than six months, he experienced trauma that would last a lifetime. While the physical pain eased over time, the mental war waged on. The beginning signs of PTSD didn’t present themselves in a uniform fashion, as they hardly ever do. But, he struggled with mood swings, as he felt angry, depressed, lost and confused. What would be his new “normal”?

He felt betrayed by his time in Iraq and was not sure where the rest of his life would take him. In the military, they tell you how to be, what to do and who to be. Returning to civilian life, he felt lost without that structure and purpose. “I think that’s mainly what veterans with PTSD struggle with,” he said.

After less than a year back at home, his first wife left him. He contemplated suicide but decided not to take his own life or stay huddled in a corner.

“When you have severe mood swings, it affects how you interact with others,” he said. “It affects whom you turn to and whom you can trust. It cost me a couple of marriages and jobs. But I’m better for it now that I learned to deal with it all.” Anthony Gendreau, a PTSD advocate and clinical psychologist based out of Panama City, also experienced PTSD after his time in the military and found relief in giving back to his community and by supporting other veterans.

According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), veterans returning from Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom have been experiencing PTSD at levels around 11 to 20 percent in a given year. This is about double the percentage of PTSD in the civilian population, which maintains around seven to eight percent.

Gendreau said that this number could be even higher. “In my experience, roughly 85 to 90 percent of this era of veteran experience PTSD in one way or form, whether they realize it or not,” he said. Gendreau said that the VA is under staffed for the large volume  of veterans that require its services and that sometimes it can take up to four months to receive mental care.

“PTSD up until recently was really frowned upon in the military,” he said. “It manifests itself in many different ways: addiction, heavy drinking, being standoffish or seeking isolation are common symptoms. A lot of veterans have other health issues that also trigger it.”

Both Gendreau and Harvey advocate for nontraditional therapies after experiencing bad side effects from multiple medications, which led to more health problems and more hospital visits. “I don’t believe in zombie dope— overmedication to the point where you don’t feel,” Gendreau said.

Gendreau found purpose and relief in group therapy. He started his nonprofit organization, Set for Success, in Panama City, where he and his team offer support groups and job preparation for their community of veterans. “Trauma is 365 days a year,” he said. “Everyday something happens and you try to block it off by shutting down. But all these things catch up to you, and you have to address it.”

Harvey found clarity and comfort in equine therapy. He was on eight or nine different mental health medications over the course of four to five years before he stopped taking them, after one landed him in the hospital.

“When it comes to any type of healing with those type of issues, it is going to take whatever it takes, just like my work with horses.” he said. “Veterans need to continue to move forward and figure out what their purpose and their value is going to be. Without purpose and value, they’re never going to be able to function really well.”

For Harvey, giving back to his community provided the purpose and value he needed to feel better. Currently, he is an officer in the local Military Order of the Purple Heart Chapter, a mentor for the local Veterans Court, and a member of the Masonic Lodge, the Shriners Club and Rotary International.

“You can’t change the big problems the country is having, but you can influence your local community,” he said.

Established in July 2000, Horses Helping People, or HOPE, has helped over a thousand people, according to Harvey. Its programs include adapted riding therapies and equine assisted learning, the Memoree program for patients with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, equine recreational therapy, equine assisted psychotherapy, and first responder and veterans programs.

“We promote the experience of patience, communication and trust. It’s all about those three things,” he said. “It’s about individuals feeling better about themselves.”

Harvey began riding in 2006 through the Society for Creative Anachronism, a medieval club, and was then paired with HOPE as part of Mission Continues, a nonprofit organization that empowers veterans to adjust to life at home through community impact. His participation in The Wounded Warrior Project’s Great Florida Cattle Drive also was instrumental. He said the culmination of these efforts showed him that he needed to be involved with horses and his community.

Harvey said that horses helped fill the void he felt after leaving the military, where he built close friendships. The sense of brotherhood and purpose in the military can be hard to feel when returning to civilian life.

“It’s a different type of bond because you rely on those guys,” he said. “That trust is important to you. When you leave all that, there’s a sort of vacancy there, where you’re not sure you can be all right on your own. But with a horse, there’s an unconditional sense of support and security there that you don’t necessarily get from folks regularly. When working with an animal, there is teamwork that is similar to what you have in the military.”

These types of experiences and emotions are what make equine therapy such a great option for veterans experiencing PTSD. Harvey said that being on and around horses provides a grounding experience that pulls people into the moment.

“With many of us veterans, our patience and trust is short,” he said. “But the horse won’t betray your trust, and it makes a big difference for guys who could have those issues. The guys that learn to understand, how to communicate with a horse and get better with their patience, well, that eventually spills over into their day to day lives.”

HOPE, which resides on a 40-acre facility, is a free service for veterans and first responders and recently became the Alachua County Equine Representative for Special Olympics. Its staff has extensive knowledge in physical therapy, occupational therapy, exercise science, nursing, and special education. HOPE also boasts a large volunteer base, with students from the University of Florida, logging over 1000 hours each semester.

The organization has been helping an average of 150 people a year and sees many clients continuously. HOPE is looking to buy a large 59-acre lot in the coming years, where it can build its own property and provide more services.

“As far as success goes, you have to be there to understand,” Harvey said. “It’s not just about being able to ride or being able to get out and sit with people who treat you normally. It’s about individuals feeling better about themselves, having normal interactions and laughing with others, and having personal development they shape for themselves.”

Harvey said that he’s built a great support network in Alachua County, and he hopes to help lead HOPE into its next big stage. He graduated from Santa Fe College in January 2016 and is now pursuing executive certifications in nonprofit management from the Notre Dame online program.

“I have found a home in Alachua County (Archer to be exact),” he said. “And now my mission is to find a Home for HOPE, which happens to be the name of our upcoming capital campaign, requiring $1.3 million to purchase Sawhorse Farms. We already have $200,000 promised from an anonymous donor if we raise the other $1.1 million.”

Harvey said that he didn’t feel like it was the right time to tell his story for many years. He did not feel like it would have a positive impact on his own life or his community— until now. “I hope this story will help energize the community to support HOPE so that we can continue to heal veterans and individuals with disabilities,” he said.

“I just want to know that there is a place that anyone can go and be able to heal through horses if that is what it takes for them to get better. Without Cathi Brown, an original founder of HOPE, I wouldn’t have found my purpose and value. I hope I can carry on her legacy and love of horses and what they do for others for years to come.”

Patti Fabiani, the Executive Director of the Gainesville Fisher House Foundation, said Harvey embodies the “get out there” mentality of serving for his country and being actively involved in his community.

“Travis is 100% disabled from PTSD, yet he has found his way to helping others and is becoming such a force of nature,” she said. “It’s amazing. The work he’s doing is so spectacular.”

If you’re a veteran and/or suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder, check out HOPE at horseshelpingpeople.org, Mission Continues at missioncontinues.org, and the Wounded Warrior Project at woundedwarriorproject.org.