The six veterans came from many different walks of life, but they all shared the same hope for a turning point.
Over the course of the past two weeks, This Able Veteran, a non-profit based in Carbondale, trained the group in the skills necessary to live a happy, productive life through the assistance of individually chosen and trained service dogs.
Luis Zaragoza of Chicago, who served in the Army until 2004, heard about the program while applying for his GI Bill at SIU.
“I didn’t really know what it entailed,” said Zaragoza, who copes with hyper-vigilance from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“When you go to the doctors, they just pump you with medicine and I knew that wasn’t the answer. I was looking for some alternative to that.”
Founded in early 2011 by Behesha Doan, This Able Veteran has made its goal to provide the best service dogs possible at no cost to veterans.
The process begins with selective breeding focused on the temperament of the dog’s parents, the most critical factor in the success of a service dog, according to Doan.
From early on, the dogs are trained to ignore intense distractions and focus on the owner. Soon after birth, Doan begins the process of training each dog for the specific veteran it will be paired with. This custom-fit approach is the key to a successful pairing.
Henry B., who serves in the Navy, was referred to This Able Veteran by a staff member at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence in Bethesda, Md. Doan worked with Henry, who asked his last name not be used in the newspaper, and his therapist to determine his triggers for PTSD.
His service dog, Stella, was then trained over the course of a year to recognize these mannerisms, such as a twitching fist, and interrupt them with the touch of a paw or nose, even as Henry slept.
“Having her there has improved my sleep, which directly translates into improvements in daily living,” Henry said.
In addition to the assistance the dogs offer on a daily basis, working with the animals teaches the veterans to regulate their emotions. By training the owners to communicate with their dogs in a near-whisper, they are forced to be aware of and manage their emotions, which translates to better relationships with friends and family, Doan said.
Finding the path
By developing a goal for the way of life they want to live back home, the therapy helps each veteran find out how they seek to get better.
Working with their service dogs, the veterans develop a “path through suffering,” a proactive approach to taking control of their care.
Dr. Thomas Kadela of the Marion VA Medical Center said confronting PTSD and reaching out for help is often the toughest step.
Generally, he said, there are three reasons: Our society attaches a stigma to mental illness; military culture sees any mental or physical defect as a sign of weakness; avoidance is a common symptom of PTSD itself.
Most critically, there is a fear among those returning from war that a PTSD diagnosis will disqualify them from certain careers.
Kadela said the opposite is true.
“If you aren’t dealing with your symptoms, you will have a hard time getting a job. You have a much better chance if you’re able to say you beat it,” he said.
He argues that not only can PTSD be beaten, it is one of the most treatable mental illnesses.
To be accepted into the program at This Able Veteran, applicants must be engaged in therapy and have a clinician referral, a requirement that exceeds national standards.
“This is the best course of treatment,” Kadela said. “Therapy and medication both work independently, but working the two together drastically increases the success rate. There must be a therapy component.”
For veterans with PTSD, going out in public can be a source of anxiety and fear. Part of the This Able Veteran training includes taking the service dog teams into congested public areas such as malls and restaurants.
“They see the handsome Maverick and all of a sudden, they want to come over and engage in conversation,” said Mattice, after a morning of environmental training at Illinois Star Centre mall. “As limited as it has been, it’s still conversation I would not have had before.”
Before entering the program, he had avoided shopping malls for more than eight years.
Doan’s goal is to give the veterans a new mission: To take their skills as leaders and use them to empower their recovery.
“The fact that dogs require leadership to feel safe lends well to the veteran who understands leadership and direction well,” she said.
A mission, even if it’s as simple as a trip to the store, is critical to breaking the bonds of PTSD and getting the veterans back into their lives.
“Emotionally, (Stella) is a point of focus, which allows me to comfortably do things out in public that I couldn’t do in the past,” Henry said.
As the veterans complete their training and head back out into the world, they are looking for ways to reach out to others and give back.
Zaragoza is wrapping up his master’s degree in public administration at SIU, and is looking to use his education to improve the claims process veterans go through to receive treatment for PTSD.
“I want to help veterans out and make their lives better,” he said.
Doan hopes the program can help change the way society views PTSD.
“The ability to say, ‘I am a proud servant of the United States. I was injured, asked for help and am now extending my hand.’ There is no stigma in that kind of heroism,” she said.
Going through the program has given the veterans a new lease on their lives. Because of Maverick, Mattice is going to finish school and pursue a new career as a motorcycle mechanic.
“He’s going to help me get off my porch,” Mattice said.
The work ahead
The total cost of a service dog can range from $17,000 to $35,000. In addition to acquisition costs and those such as veterinary care, food, grooming and kenneling, the majority of expenses come from training the dogs six days a week for 12 to 18 months before they are ready to serve.
Outside the three to four hours of direct daily training, the dogs are cared for by the training staff in their homes, where every interaction is used to reinforce anxiety-reduction and mobility assistance techniques. For the two-week training program with the veterans, the costs include lodging, travel, meals and training equipment such as crates, vests and leashes.
After graduating the first class of six veterans, Doan is already planning for the next group. There are more than 100 applicants waiting to be matched, despite no advertising.
“We would love to be able to recruit, but we need a lot of help to make it happen,” Doan said.
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