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St. Pete group follows therapy mantra: To help the soldier, help the family

One method used by the Brian Bill Foundation brings couples together at a horse ranch on the Kissimmee River.

LAKE WALES — Robert Simison squinted at the scene before him. His blindfolded fiancée Jamie Boate was taking a few tentative steps forward as she stroked the mane of the horse walking beside her.

“Go straight,” Simison yelled out, trying to direct Boate and the horse around a cone on the ground.

The goal was to get the couple communicating across the obstacle course in a helpful, healthy way — a tricky prospect when stress from military service is involved. Simison, 36, is a retired Army Sgt. 1st Class.

Robert Simison and fiancee Jamie Boate enjoy the central Florida sunshine during couples therapy for Special Operations Forces at the Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo east of Lake Wales. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Special to the Times ]

A mental health counselor observing the couple nodded in approval as Boate, 24, adjusted her position and led her equine partner smoothly around the obstacle.

This was the second time Simison and Boate took part in an all-expense paid military couples retreat put on by the St. Petersburg-based Brian Bill Foundation. The retreat, for Special Operations Forces active-duty personnel, veterans and their spouses, offers couples time and space to reconnect and work on their communication as they juggle the challenges that come with military life.

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The program, held at Westgate River Ranch on the Kissimmee River east of Lake Wales, is one of the few nonprofit led efforts to approach military therapy in a holistic way where the focus extends beyond the service member.

“People fail to remember the larger picture of the family unit,” Simison said.

Robert Simison takes part in a couples retreat for Special Operations Forces at the Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo east of Lake Wales. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Special to the Times ]

The foundation’s Scott and Jennifer Bill added a couples retreat to their therapy programming last year after realizing through discussions with participants that getting spouses involved in counseling is crucial in the process of recovery from the stresses that military service can bring.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and the Department of Defense offer national marriage and family counseling to eligible veterans and service members. But nonprofits like the Brian Bill Foundation offer unique services that succeed at a greater rate, Boate said.

“You have to do something different to get something different,” she said.

Equine therapy, yoga, and accelerated resolution therapy are just some of the services couples can get through the Brian Bill Foundation.

The equestrian therapy, in particular, offers some advantages: Horses share the fight or flight mentality many veterans experience, Boate said. Horses are also tapped into a person’s emotions so the attitudes of the couples are reflected in the animal.

“The horse is not going to lie to you,” Boate said.

Others have recognized the need for a holistic approach to counseling among service personnel.

Robert Simison and fiancee Jamie Boate speak with counselor Joanne Turner during couples therapy for Special Operations Forces at the Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo east of Lake Wales. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Special to the Times ]

The National Military Family Association began offering its free, one-week Operation Purple Camp in 2004. The program was designed to help children who were seeing their parents deployed at increasing rates as wars in Afghanistan and Iraq escalated.

This included children of National Guard and Reserves members who needed help adjusting to the comings and goings of military life, said Hannah Pike, the Virginia-based nonprofit’s Military Family Programs director.

Since then, the organization has expanded to include a number of military family retreats, including some in Florida, working with family life counselors from the Department of Defense to help in the reconnection process.

Military families face a host of unique challenges, including the grief of separation when a parent or spouse is on deployment, the process of reacquainting after the long absences, and the secondary post-traumatic stress disorder that spouses and children may experience as the service member works back into their routines of life.

Military leaders are recognizing the need for whole-family counseling.

“When you are a military family, the whole family serves,” Department of Defense spokeswoman Jessica R. Maxwell told the Tampa Bay Times in an email. “They experience a unique set of challenges together and individually.”

Time with a therapy dog was part of the couples retreat attended by Robert Simison at the Westgate River Ranch & Rodeo east of Lake Wales. [ WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Special to the Times ]

Still, advocates say, more work is needed to fill in the gaps.

“There is not enough support available,” Pike said.

Patients at one Tampa health center have said they have trouble finding family counseling through their military health insurance, said clinic director Karen Blanchette.

The center, the Steven A. Cohen Military Family Clinic at Aspire Health Partners, opened last year and caters to post 9/11 veterans and their loved ones, treating the military family as a group. Special plans are offered for children, adolescents and couples.

The definition of family is loose, Blanchette said, so veterans can bring in anyone they choose.

It’s critical for the military family unit to communicate successfully, she said, for the sake of the family as well as the service member.

Back at Westgate River Ranch, Simison and Boate worked their way through the obstacle course.

“When I give you a direction, don’t just walk in that direction," Simison said, “Walk like you’re walking on.”

“You mean curve?” Boate asked.

“Yes,” Simison replied.

Soon, they traded places, taking pains to communicate clearly and calmly to accomplish their goal.

The key, they agreed, and sometimes the hardest thing to do, is to remember they’re on the same team.