Tuesday, June 14, 2011


Father's Day is Sunday.  Sadly, I am all too aware of those fathers who are deployed, who will be unable to be with their families at the lake, the pool, the barbecue, or in front of the television dozing on the sofa.  I am also way too aware of those fathers who struggle just to survive another day after returning from war.  For them the war just begins when they return home.

More than 134,000 people made calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline last year. Of those callers, 61 percent identified themselves as veterans, while 7 percent identified themselves as a friend or family of a veteran.  These are young men and women who are someone's son, daughter, brother, sister, father, mother, husband or wife.  Leaving the battlefield and reintegrating back into the world they left behind is traumatizing.

Veterans and their therapists, case managers, psychiatric support system and families have reported a dramatic decrease in night terrors and suicidal thoughts and even medications after being provided with a PTSD Support Service Dog. 

"I'll cry with you,"she whispered ,until we run out of tears.  Even if it's forever. We'll do it together."  There it was a simple promise of connection. The loving alliance of grief and hope that blesses both our breaking apart and our coming together again.

Molly Fumia, Safe Passage

These dogs don't know it, but they are a buffer to the warrior.  A buffer that gauges the safety of the warrior's surroundings that affords them the ability to go into public places without constantly scanning for snipers, hidden bombs and dangers that lurk in the deep recesses of their minds. 

Jim, deployed three times, was in twenty three IED explosions.  He was injured each time he was in Iraq.  When he returned, he struggled moment to moment with PTSD, short term memory loss, and lack of cognitive reasoning.  He can't tie his shoe laces and jokes that his little baby boy will have to help him.

My therapy/service dog, Kelsie, went to him the very first time, as of they were long lost friends.  She nuzzled his neck and worked her way up to is ear with her nose.  She snuggled him on the sofa in the day room of The Barracks at BAMC, allowing him to sleep, a kind of sleep he couldn't find alone in his room at night. 

The first time we met was Christmas Eve a few years ago.  The first moment he saw Kelsie he sat down on the floor, wrapped his arms around her,  held onto her and simply looked at me and said thank you.  Jim started quietly talking, telling me what his personal dogs do for him.  "They don't judge me or ask me how they can help.  They are simply there."  He said he was tired of people asking how they can help.  "They can't.  But when my dogs are around it is better.  I can relax.  My heart rate lowers and the panic lessens."

He didn't have long to hold onto his furry Christmas gift.  He had a plane to catch.  But as he left, he looked back at me and asked if I would come back with Kelsie after the holidays.  I assured him I would.  Several days later, this guy with a TBI, PTSD and short term memory loss, called me from the airport and said he was back and when could he see Kelsie again.  I cried.

For several months Kelsie and I would visit Jim on weekends.  Kelsie would get up on the sofa and snuggle him and within minutes both would be sound asleep.  You see the key is neither Kelsie, nor I, judged him.  We allowed him to be who he was.  Like Kelsie, I was simply there to listen. 

There was no way of knowing what our meeting Jim would one day mean to literally hundreds of warriors returning home to fight one of the largest battles of their lives.  The battle against PTSD.  Their lives are changed forever, as they wage the fight of immeasurable pain, grief, depression, brain injuries, amputations, severe burns, loss of vision, loss of hearing, and more. 

A wounded warrior's wife once told me that "People don't want to see it, experience it.  Sadly they hide or turn away from the reality of it all.  They have no concept or appreciation of what it takes to be free ~ the price of freedom.  Sticking their heads in the sand is transferred to their children.  What you don't see or feel to your core like amputations and burns, or the invisible wounds of PTSD, is not real.  It is not there." 

I thought of how many people I know, when asked if they would like to accompany me to visit with the warriors, decline. Decline with excuses because they don't want to see it, feel it, touch it, or at the very least offer a hug of appreciation and a few words of gratitude.  They don't want to see it because it will make them sad or uncomfortable.  These guys and gals have given all.  Isn't recognition or a few words of appreciation mandatory? So many of these warriors have thanked me and my Kelsie, Penny and Gracie for our work, for caring, for coming, for giving, for listening, and for just taking the time to sit with them.  How can we as humans give anything less?  As the soldier's wife said, "These men need to be embraced and thanked.  They stand by their buddies to the death, but who stands by them when they come home?"

Each veteran's story is unique, but there is a uniting thread. And that is quite simply, combat changes you. Some returning warriors can cope and some can't. Some contemplate suicide, some attempt it, and eighteen kill themselves each day. 

I ask if we are able to provide a PTSD Support Service Dog for a warrior isn't it the right thing to do?  Isn't it about time?
I end this by telling you that meeting Jim was a huge stepping stone in the formation of TADSAW (Train a Dog ~ Save a Warrior), based in San Antonio, TX.  It was a huge step for Jim as well.  He and his wife have established PAWSANDSTRIPES.ORG, an organization, based in New Mexico,  providing service dogs for our returning warriors with PTSD.  I would like to think in part the formation of this organization by Jim was his relationship with Kelsie.  Perhaps it was, perhaps it wasn't.  But what I do know is that it was in the divine plan that they met, and that they snuggled, and that a difference was made in the life of one man who has decided to pay it forward. I was honored and proud to have known this warrior, and to see how both of our missions are parallel and making a difference, one warrior and one dog at a time.

So this father's day please remember what families have sacrificed and given so that you might spend the day at the pool or safe at home in front of the television set.  And say a prayer for all those young men and women who don't want to see tomorrow, the burden is too heavy. 

And please, if you find it in your heart to help http://www.tadsaw.org/ or http://www.pawsandstripes.org/ please do so.  The money you donate toward the training of a service dog just might save a life.

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