LINCOLN, Neb. — When he's riding horses, Cody Beach doesn't remember the bullets flying past him, or the explosions that caused him to lose 80 percent of his hearing.
It's the only time he can truly relax.
Beach is one of about 20 veterans who commute from Lincoln to Hickman to participate in horse-assisted therapy at Guide to the Soul Equitherapy. Owners Jana Christensen Bauman and Tony Bauman provide free sessions to veterans and anyone in need.
Research has shown that being around animals can help people to relax and feel comfortable.
"For people with PTSD being around horses is very therapeutic," Jana told the Lincoln Journal Star. "It can get them out of their head and get them doing something that they enjoy."
Beach has seen firsthand how helpful the alternative therapy has been in reducing his symptoms.
He served in the Army for three years, including one year deployed to the front lines as an infantryman in Afghanistan.
As time passed, his symptoms increased.
It started with nightmares. He'd scream in his sleep, saying things in Pashto, the language spoken in Afghanistan. He was jumpy and paranoid in crowds. Loud noises triggered fear.
He felt like he was always on edge.
After returning from deployment, Beach was in the Army for another year. He didn't acknowledge the symptoms, he said, until he left the military in 2013.
"I didn't recognize it because there were other guys that thought like I did, so I wasn't too concerned with it," he said. "Being out felt like I was alone, I didn't have anyone to understand what I was going through."
He has several military friends and acquaintances who also struggle with PTSD. The severity of the problem hit home for him when a friend committed suicide after deployment a few years ago.
While you're at war, you expect to see death, he said, but "finding out a buddy that came home ends up taking his own life, you realize it's a big issue and you're not ready for it."
He sought help at Veterans Affairs, but he said he didn't feel like it was what he needed at the time. Last year, a former boss connected him with Guide to the Soul, and Beach said he feels like he has found his family.
He immediately bonded with Jana and Tony Bauman and felt that being around horses helped relieve some of the anxiety and fear caused by PTSD.
The Baumans have created an oasis for veterans to get away from everyday life and find community. This year, they put up a playground and above-ground pool to include families. They sometimes host campfires or events to foster the community atmosphere.
The couple started the nonprofit three years ago after a suggestion from Jana's daughter, who was helping children through equine therapy.
There are different forms of equine therapy. One side deals with physical therapy aspects and focuses on how the horse moves, and the other focuses on the more emotional effects of being with horses.
Jana and Tony help match riders up with horses. Beach said he bonded with a horse named Annabelle. The connection has helped him to alleviate some of his PTSD symptoms.
When Beach began coming to Guide to the Soul, he had to bring his therapy dog with him every time. Now, he's gotten to the point where he feels comfortable and safe enough to leave his dog at home.
"Everyday life I'm going to have struggles, and I know that's going to be for the rest of my life," Beach said. "But when I'm out here, I'm worry-free."
One of the horses is a certified therapy horse, which means she is trained for the physical therapy side, Jana said. The couple had originally planned to pursue that side of the therapy before deciding on a cause closer to their heart. Both have family members in the military and veterans issues are something they feel passionate about.
The more veterans they get to know, the more determined they are to help. It breaks their heart seeing people, like Beach, struggle as a result of their service. They want to provide a safe space for veterans to go and seek another form of help.
Guide to the Soul runs entirely off donations and the therapy sessions are free. Jana and Tony host fundraisers, one which will be held June 24, to raise money to help them cover the costs to maintain the space and care for their eight horses.
"We don't want to limit somebody from getting help or being around horses that doesn't have the funds to do it," she said.
Currently, both Jana and Tony work full-time jobs elsewhere and provide services when they have time off. Someday, they hope to work at Guide to the Soul full-time and perhaps even hire an employee. The nonprofit is still young, Jana said, and because they exist purely from goodwill donation it isn't an option yet.
All eight of the horses have been rescued. Each comes from a different situation, but most arrived severely underweight and had been neglected or abused. Jana drove to pick up the first two horses that she rescued, but found the situations so heartbreaking that she now has someone else deliver them.
One of the horses is not used for therapy because he suffered extreme abuse. Years later, he is still skittish about trusting people, Jana said.
Rescuing the horses, Jana said, goes hand in hand with the work they now do.
"It's a second chance for them and we're providing a second chance or help for people," Jana said.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com