Thursday, September 2, 2010


"Give me all the money you want.  It won't match what my dog gives me."

"I guess I didn't get hurt for nothing.  People really do care."

My question is - "Is anybody listening?" Our injured Soldiers, Airmen, Marines, and Navy are sending signals in every way possible to tell us that a dog is helping them with their PTSD symptoms.  They are telling us that the quality of their lives is improved to a very great degree with a dog by their sides. 

It has been a long slow process from Florence Nightengale discovering that caged birds brought great comfort to her patients, to pets being adopted by troops overseas in WW I, WW II, Korea, Vietnam and the Balkans, to two selected and trained therapy dogs being attached to combat stress units in Tikrit and Mosul, where they are a vital part of the medical team that assists troops struggling with stress, sleep disorders and ‘event-related trauma.’ This is the first time in the history of the military that therapy dogs have been sent to a war zone. It only makes sense that therapy dogs are being introduced to wounded warriors returning with a myriad of injuries, many unseen.

Penny’s From Heaven Foundation’s therapy dogs have found a niche that most therapy dogs haven’t, the world of Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) for wounded warriors. The dog is a modality to break the ice, to lighten the mood, to open the heart once again for heroes who were trained to kill and to witness things no one should be expected to witness. These dogs also break down the stigma and negative aspects of mental health issues, as they serve as a reminder of home, and a simpler time.

These therapy dogs, working with wounded warriors, are trained  basic, intermediate and advanced obedience. They are trained to work despite loud noises and distractions and they are trained not to socialize with people who may be afraid or disinterested. It is no surprise that therapy dogs help reduce stress and anxiety and increase the feeling of safety. But the use of therapy dogs has yet to be fully understood or utilized to any great degree, when it comes to treating depression. Sure we all have depressed days, but the depression that comes home with a wounded warrior is life altering. These special dogs with their simple gift of presence, offer acceptance no matter what the injury might be. They don’t care what the wounded warrior looks like, if he has severe burns all over his body, or if he is missing a limb or multiple limbs, or if he has short term memory loss and can’t remember how to tie his shoes. These dogs are simply there - to listen, to snuggle, and for a time to help these heroes forget their nightmares.

Today therapy dogs with their calm, patient and quiet demeanor provide a safety net of support and comfort. Through recognition, education, acceptance, treatment and support, Penny’s From Heaven Foundation is promoting the use of trained therapy dogs with those suffering from PTSD and TBI. Kelsie, Gracie and other PTSD Support Dogs provide specific tasks for 'their' soldiers such as being able to snuggle and kiss something that isn’t a threat. The dogs alert the person to the presence of other people. The dogs assess the surroundings simply by shifting their focus and attention by moving their eyes. They provide a necessary tactile stimulation by distracting the person from his/her anxiety. My little blind therapy dog, Gracie, has gotten into the trenches and changed the lives of our wounded heroes one at a time at Brooke Army Medical Center’s Fisher Houses, Warrior Family Support Center, Lackland AFB Fisher House, the Marine Annex and the Barracks. From group therapy sessions with the soldiers, to standing beside them as they pray, or as they sing the National Anthem with one hand over their heart and one on Gracie’s head; to Gracie lying on their laps, as they try to forget the horrors of war for one moment; to having a wounded soldier pin his most cherished possession, his Combat Infantryman Badge, on Gracie’s therapy vest because he loved her that much; to Gracie gently nuzzling the hole in a helmet made by a bullet that had taken forty percent of a soldier’s brain, as he wept in her presence and simply said “Gracie understands.” When a warrior cradles Gracie in his arms like a baby and cries unashamedly into her fur upon learning of the loss of one of his buddies in Iraq, it becomes easy to see that this little dog was born with a purpose and why the soldiers call her their ‘angel.’

The amputees, the burn survivors, the traumatic brain injured wounded warriors have found a comrade in arms in this little unexpected ‘soldier’s angel.’ Their individual stories are heartwarming, poignant, inspiring, and life altering. Gracie works her way into the hearts of not only the wounded warriors, but their mothers, fathers, wives, and children and makes their troubles a little lighter. She salutes them by bowing her head, as they quietly rest their foreheads and burdens on hers. Their attitude is one of gratitude simply for her gift of presence. Gracie does not judge or shy away from the wounded. Providing the best possible medicine, she loves unconditionally and accepts them as they are. And in the end Gracie and her gift of presence teaches us all that those struggling to heal are defined by the same things we all are, our family, our friends and our faith.

Gracie and our other therapy dogs working with the wounded warriors quite simply break down the barriers. Another lesson of huge proportions learned from a little dog. To Gracie, 'her' soldiers are just new friends whose appearances simply are not important.

I was, and will always be, filled with wonder at what a member of another species teaches us about unconditional love and the interconnectedness of all living things on this earth. To paraphrase one of my favorite authors, Antoine de Saint Exupery, “Here is my secret. It is very simple. The essential things in life are seen not with the eyes, but with the heart.”

I reflect back to Gracie and Kelsie and how even if a soldier gives up on themselves, these dogs never give up on them.

Another mystery of the heart perhaps.

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