Atlanta – It’s not a secret that veteran suicides are at an all time high in this country. The latest statistics still show that 20 or more veterans take their own lives every day. And the rates of veterans with PTSD who are incapacitated by anxiety, depression, and the struggle to live with the trauma they have endured are extremely high as well.
Service dogs can unlock the prison that veterans with PTSD are trapped in: the prison of their experiences. With the help of a service dog veterans all over the country can leave their homes, manage their anxiety, and live. They can reconnect with loved ones and find a feeling of safety and being grounded in the world. Service dogs provide comfort, and love, and reduce the feelings of isolation that veterans experience.
A recent study done through Purdue University and published in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology proved that service dogs are effective healing tools for veterans. But anyone that has ever watched a veteran interact with a service dog already knew that.
When servicemembers go to war they have to shut off their ability to empathize. It’s necessary, and it helps them to stay alive and process the horrors of war. But learning to empathize again when they come home can be a challenge. Connecting with animals is a great way for servicemembers to remember empathy and unconditional love again.
When my husband was on his second combat tour in Afghanistan with the 101st Airborne it was a rough deployment. There were many injuries, and many casualties. Morale was low, and emotions were high. Until OP came along.
When my husband was on patrol he and the other soldiers found a stray dog. Or rather, the dog found them. The dog was in rough shape. His ears had been cut off. He had cuts and bruises, and burns. But he walked right up the soldiers and wagged his tail. The soldiers shared their food and water with him then went on their way. But OP wasn’t going to be left behind. He followed them all the way back to their base. He became their unofficial mascot and good luck charm. He patrolled with them always, and he alerted them to potential dangers to keep them safe.
After OP1, named for the outpost where they found him, came into their lives things changed. When my husband called home he was no longer cold, angry and distant. He talked animatedly about OP and the toys and treats that the families were sending for him. He ate MREs and the food from the care packages that the families sent and became an integral part of the soldiers’ lives.
I knew the soldiers’ bond with OP was special. Too many of their brothers were not going to make it back when the deployment was over so I knew that OP had to make it back. I got in touch with a wonderful rescue organization that was willing to help get OP1 back to the US so that when the soldiers came home from their tour OP1 would be waiting along with their families.
It was a rough journey. First he had to be smuggled off the base and had to be secretly taken to a shelter in Kabul, then to Pakistan, and finally to the US. OP1 had an armed escort off the base and had to travel in secret because he was in danger. Insurgents, knowing how much the dogs meant to the soldiers, would target them and anyone helping to get them out. Hurting the dogs who became their battle buddies was a way to hurt the soldiers so the dogs had to travel at night with armed escorts.
Throughout the journey my husband would call me as often as he could and the first thing he would ask about was OP. Was he safe? Was he on his way to the US? When a couple of weeks passed and I had no new information about where OP was my husband’s voice was clipped and tense during every call. He needed to know that OP was ok. And even though the journey was difficult for him OP made it safely to the US.
And when he was reunited with his soldiers there wasn’t a dry eye in the room. He was adopted by one of the soldiers and became the squadron PT leader, leading the soldiers on long runs and ruck marches. He also was the guardian of that soldier’s children when they played outside. He took his job very seriously, but that didn’t stop him from enjoying the comforts of life in the States like good food and soft couches. OP1 was not a service dog, but the bond that the soldiers had with him was life changing for them. And the bond that veterans have with service dogs is life changing for them.
Service dogs provide practical services to veterans. They can help veterans deal with stress. And they can improve a veteran’s satisfaction with their lives as well as make it possible for veterans with crippling anxiety to go outside, go to restaurants and shops, work, and be present in the world.
But more than that service dogs reawaken empathy, and love, and kindness in veterans who often feel they don’t deserve any of those things. They can quiet terror and keep veterans who are suffering flashbacks grounded in the present moment. They are a reminder that love, companionship, and life are still possible. Service dogs are a lifeline to veterans with PTSD and they can and do save lives.
But service dogs are expensive to train and expensive to keep. Veterans that are on a fixed income often can’t pay the high fees necessary to get a service dog. And they need extra support to make sure they can pay for food and veterinary care for their dogs. That’s where you can help.
As a military spouse and now as a veteran’s spouse I have heard people say over and over through the years that they want to help our veterans but they don’t know how to provide practical help. This is how you can help. This is how you can show up for them the way that they showed up for you. They risked everything to protect us, and now they are depending on you to help them.
Donating money to help veterans get service dogs gives direct assistance to veterans. It helps them get the support they need and a lifeline back to the world. This is how you can reach across the divide that keeps veterans feeling like outsiders and offer them a way back to the world. Please donate whatever you can today and share this campaign with your friends and family.