Down a crumbly road lined with tall pine trees off U.S. 17-92 is a place that’s the first of its kind — a recovery program for, and run by, military veterans.
Heroes’ Mile, which began accepting patients this month in a facility just outside DeLand, is looking to save the lives of those who have seen the worst by providing several types of therapies and services in an environment run by people who have shared in the experience of war.
One of the first patients, who asked to remain anonymous, was still detoxing last week, having arrived at the facility after flying into Florida just eight hours earlier from New Jersey. The man said he’s been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for years. He’s also tried other treatment centers, but found it hard to relate to people who can’t understand what he’s been through as a military veteran.
The 43-year-old, who wasn’t ready to go into detail about his deployments or former military responsibilities in information technology, got choked up as he recalled the conversation he had with Heroes’ Mile staff.
“The message they gave me was just unbelievable,” the Marine Corps veteran said. “I talk to these guys, and I don’t feel like I gotta hold anything back.”
Veterans finding the strength to discuss their issues and what they’ve been through is just one of the goals at the facility, said John Picciano, the CEO of Oglethorpe Inc. Picciano is one of the founders of Heroes’ Mile, which is owned and managed by Oglethorpe, a national hospital management company based in Tampa.
“He’s a hero,” Picciano said of the Marine Corps veteran. “So we want to be able to not only recognize him as a hero, but give him a chance at life again.”
While Picciano isn’t a veteran himself — he was drafted but his service was deferred when he went to seminary — he’s spent decades working with people, including many veterans, who have substance abuse and mental health issues.
He founded Heroes’ Mile with retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. William Lennox Jr., a former West Point superintendent and Oglethorpe’s veteran ambassador.
“We are creating a safe environment for them, because everybody’s a vet; they got your back,” Picciano said. “If you go into a regular rehab, nobody has your back.”
Creating such an environment was about more than hiring veterans to help veterans. Despite the intensity of what would be taking place, the facility needed to be warm and inviting and feel like a home, not cold and institutional like military barracks.
“We’re not preparing them to go to war, we’re preparing them to go to life,” Picciano said.
“Opening up is the beginning of solving the problem,” Lennox said in a phone interview.
The services available at Heroes’ Mile include detoxification and medical supervision, individual and daily group counseling, post-traumatic stress and military-sexual trauma counseling, art therapy, comfort pet therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy, spiritual healing, job preparation and training, residential and intensive outpatient programs and more.
Picciano hopes to incorporate more holistic treatments in the future since Gov. Ron DeSantis recently approved a bill from Sen. Tom Wright, R-New Smyrna Beach, that will allow for a study of alternative treatment options for veterans who have PTSD or a traumatic brain injury.
“When all is said and done, the success of these alternatives will reunite veterans with their families and expand their opportunities,” Wright said in a news release. “We cannot thank our veterans and their families enough for their sacrifice and selfless service to our nation and we must continue to support them to ensure they have the best quality of life.”
Heroes’ Mile also has common areas indoors and outdoors where veterans can gather and watch TV or chat.
“This is normal, you sit here, you relax, you have a cup of coffee and you talk,” Picciano said, pointing to one of the outdoor tables and chairs shaded by an umbrella. “You don’t have to be under a bridge using drugs.”
There’s also an outdoor area with exercise equipment and a small garden area with a rock fountain and a bench for veterans who need to take a quiet moment or meditate. Picciano said the property will eventually have a rope course or some other type of athletic activity on the unused acreage.
Oglethorpe is currently covering the cost of treatment for veterans who get a referral from their Veterans Affairs office, said Navy veteran Ryan Barrows, the lead admissions and training specialist and outreach minister. Once the facility has at least a few more patients, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations will look at renewing the contract for the property, which previously housed the Darryl Strawberry Recovery Center. When the contract is approved, veterans will be able to get into Heroes’ Mile with health insurance coverage.
The plan for the future is to open up additional Heroes’ Mile locations, which could be stand-alone facilities or dedicated wings or floors in other buildings, and eventually present the concept to congress in the hopes of getting the VA to incorporate Heroes’ Mile and work on grants for more facilities, Lennox said.
“If it works here, and we really think it will, anybody can do it,” Lennox said.
He said there are no plans to patent the concept as they want to see other companies duplicate the program and help as many veterans as possible.