When War Comes Home - Stories Of Healing
“What we have once enjoyed we can never lose.
All that we love deeply becomes a part of us.”
~ Helen Keller ~
Bak, a Belgian Malinois/Yellow Lab Military Working Dog (MWD) stationed
at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio , “conducts health, morale and
welfare inspections.” In addition to demonstrating the capabilities of a
dual certified patrol and narcotic detector dog, Bak also conducts
random vehicle inspections at the gates to deter the presence of
But Bak has another equally important, yet more personal, job. According to his handler Staff SGT. Nathan C. from the 12th Security Forces Military Working Dog section, Bak “is the cheapest therapist there is.” In his twenties, Nathan was diagnosed with cancer. He was understandably frightened because his grandmother and dad had both died of the disease. Five days after his diagnosis he had surgery, and the following day against the doctor’s advice, he went to the kennels to see Bak, just to let him know he was okay. “Bak is a good listener.” With his special friend and comrade, Nathan was taught the meaning of comfort and that a head on your knee can heal unbelievable hurts.
Bak has given Nathan hope and kept him positive. The encouragement and support from this very special dog has allowed Nathan to educate people that cancer doesn’t discriminate. “No matter what age you are, you are not immune.” He is also first to admit that to him "there is nothing more valuable on the face of this planet than Bak. The two and a half years we have been together he has been my best friend. We’ve never had an argument and he has never said, ‘No Dad, I don’t want to.’”
Nathan and Bak will soon be separated, deployed to different locations. But within their story courage, greatness and devoted love of country and dog is revealed. Some of us get by with a little help from our friends and then some of us are literally saved by them.
Moo Moo Mommy"I have a Saint Bernard who is the love of my life. Her name is Maggie, or as I call her, moo moo mommy. She gets into absolutely EVERYTHING, but for some reason has never gotten up on my bed. I guess she just likes hers better. She is an absolutely amazing animal and always seems to know when I need her the most. I have woken up many mornings in the back of my closet hiding, or under the bed from another night of running from the bombs and she is there. She is ALWAYS there when I need her. Even when I don't quite yet know that I need her.
I had a REALLY bad night last night. I woke up this morning underneath the dog bed. Mags didn't mind. She was laying next to me waiting to be sure I was alright before she started her busy day. Today was one of those lovely PTSD days where I wasn't alright. As the day progressed I only got worse. I paced, I couldn't quit shaking, I had one panic attack after another. I couldn't figure out why today was so bad. As I was trying to control yet another panic attack I sat on my couch and there was the answer tattooed on my arm. Randy. The 20th-21st of March 2008 was a bad day for my squad. I lost a good friend that day, a brother. Not to the I.E.D., not to the R.P.G., and not from the bullets that were flying. You see, my friend believed in all things good, and what he had to do to save his brothers was something that his young and tender heart could not live with. His heart died that day so that we could live. He took his life 6 months later. No one could reach him. I miss my friend and brother.
The day before I was medevaced the 7 of us staged a "band of brothers" photo. I haven't been able to look at it for a long time. It makes my soul ache in a way no one should ever have to feel. So I do what I always do and push it down deep inside. Of the seven of us, only five are left and I have to wonder who is next.
As the day progressed I remembered my sweet friend's smile and found myself sobbing uncontrollably. I decided to lay down in my bed and try to sleep it off. Seconds after lying in my bed I felt a warm fuzzy paw being laid over my chest. I opened my eyes to see my Maggie in my bed next to me holding me until I could get myself under control. I reached out for her and immediately felt a rush of peace come over me.
At some point I fell asleep and my boyfriend snapped to attached pictures.
To everyone who doesn't believe in the healing powers of a pup...these pictures say a thousand words."
"It always seems impossible
until its done."
any moment we may pray for courage. "Yea,
though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no
evil. For Thou art with me. Thy rod and Thy staff they encourage me...
But where and how does this power get inside the human heart? I quote from Lewis B. Smedes in a Pretty Good Person. "I have watched a long-shot filly with undistinguished bloodlines languish behind a whole field of horses for a full turn, caught in the seventh or eighth place, where the smart money expected her to finish. Then, having given nobody a hint of what she had in her, she makes a run for it. She surges, her slender legs pounding into the turf, pushing the massive barrel of her body through the thick of the pack. Her neck and her head pull her glistening chestnut bulk forward with heroic, rhythmic lunges. She reaches the leaders and then, with a final fury, finishes a fine nostril ahead of the pack."
To many this may be generated by what horse people call 'heart.' It just could be the same power that holds our warriors on their feet and keeps them fighting. Perhaps this kind of courage comes from an animal instinct. Smedes continues, "Courageous people will do what they know they have to do....the power of the heart resides in the will." Socrates taught that a person finds courage by having it taught to him. But courage is 'neither natural nor taught,' he said. But comes to us 'by divine dispensation.'
So this animal instinct, as well as will power, and faith, could be where our warrior's courage is born. To them courage comes alive in action. Our warrior's courage can be shown many ways, shapes, and forms. But none so great as when they come home and find that the burden of living is sometimes a larger burden than they can handle.
It can take great courage to to look these burdens in the face and persevere. And then there are the times when our warriors coming home with invisible wounds find a friend by their sides that will allow them to celebrate the life they have. Life isn't quite so bleak when joined in comradeship with a dog that doesn't judge what you look like, and doesn't care. A dog that will lay by your side when you are having a horrific migraine, a dog who will not turn away for fear of not knowing what to say because of your disfigured face, a dog that doesn't endlessly ask questions or put conditions or demands on you, and a dog who will face PTSD head on with you and have your back at all times, good and bad.
A PTSD Support Dog allows our warriors with this invisible wound to live with some hope in a society that sometimes appears to discourage people who have disabilities.
Our warrior's courage is often a gamble with life, but with a dog by their sides as they walk through the shadows, they are able to affirm life in the midst of their daily demons. The dictionary defines courage as 'facing danger without fear.' As Smedes so aptly wrote, "Only people who are afraid have courage. Fear is to courage what breathing in is to breathing out."
To a wounded warrior a dog offers hope. A kind of hope that doesn't come from anything or anyone else. Hope can give them a second chance and hope can give them courage to do what they are afraid to do. And suddenly they find they don't have to do it alone.
" Pain is weakness leaving
The smile might have told the end of the story,
but in truth it told the beginning.
The first time I met Michael he was cordial and standoffish. You could read PTSD all over his face. He was slightly bent and occasionally grimaced in pain, trying to hide the severity. His case manager had written to me, suggesting that Michael might benefit from a support service dog. She said he had been through hell and this just might be his ticket out.
I arranged to meet Michael and his wife close to Austin and see how we could help. In an instant, I knew that this was a young man that needed 'his' dog. Within a matter of days we had located a fostered dog that had been rescued from a kill shelter because of his amazing temperament and potential. His name was Kingsley! For weeks Michael took a giant leap and drove by himself to San Antonio every Friday to training classes with Kingsley. The connection was instantaneous. The bond was to grow deeper. As graduation day approached it became apparent that all of us had developed a bond not only with this dog but also with Michael. His smile lit up the room and his stories ripped at our hearts. We were all sad to see them leave, but knew they would continue to return for additional training. Then I received a photo of Michael and Kingsley. In this photographic moment, a simple promise of connection and an alliance of hope was captured. The days of nightmares that had been a blur, yet all too real, ones that had kept Michael from living his life, were becoming less and less.
"I'll cry with you" she
whispered "until we run out of tears. Even if it's forever. We'll do it
It was there, a simple promise of connection.
Together Michael and Kingsley had survived there own personal wars.
Together they were united and both survivors of the dark night of near
death. Together they are teaching each other to not live in the past,
and to not fear the future.
What makes Michael different? Where does his courage come from? B.C. Forbes said, "History has demonstrated that the most notable winners usually encountered heart-breaking obstacles before they triumphed. They won because they refused to become discouraged by their defeats."
Perhaps that is the answer for all of us. I am certain is has been for me.
"Never doubt that a small
group of committed people can change the world. Indeed, it is the only
thing that ever has."
Let us never forget Franklin D. Roosevelt's words,
"Those who have long enjoyed such privileges as
we enjoy, forget in time that men have died to win them." I won't
forget. And I won't forget Michael and Kingsley. That smile in the photo
keeps me answering endless phone calls from other Michaels. When the
voice at the other end simply says, "I need help."
One hundred years from now it will not matter what kind of house you lived in, what kind of car you drove, what your bank balance was. What will matter is the depth of your commitment and your devotion to give purely.
Yes, love does heal!
"The best way to find
yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others."
PREVENTION MAGAZINE indicated in a recent article that "pets can reduce your use of meds. New research shows that owning an animal is an even more powerful way to cultivate calm than previously thought. An astonishing 82% of PTSD patients paired with a service dog reported a significant reduction in symptoms, and 40% were able to decrease their medications, in an ongoing study at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
The specially trained pooches can sense, before
their owners do, when a panic attack is coming, and then give them a
nudge to start some preemptive deep breathing. "While we don't yet
understand why, we know the dogs' presence affects serotonin levels and
the immune system," says lead study researcher Craig Love, PhD.
"The animals are so helpful, one soldier named
her dog Paxil."
As I read this, I was somewhat startled at information I have known all along. Perhaps startled because someone else 'gets' it too - finally! Dogs helping to heal invisible wounds. Mine always have, so why is this a surprise? As one warrior with PTSD told me in reference to his dog, "This is the hardest, best thing I ever had. My dog makes me smile when I don't want to." I recalled a quote from Ecclesiastes, "A faithful friend is the medicine of life."
As the warriors with PTSD pass through my days, I
understand. To be witness to their dogs' intentional motivation of
loving and being loved, it isn't difficult to grasp. The responses of
the courageous young men and women to their dogs is overpowering. These
are guys and gals who laid their lives on the line, who took the
bullets, who fought the fight, and paid the price. Yet in the presence
of their dog, they turn into children with their first puppy. They have
connected to something greater than themselves. For in just a single
moment, that cannot be explained, they feel safe, loved, and not so
empty or lost.
Dogs touch hearts in a way that defies all logical explanation. And yet somehow it is explained clearly. Tom Davis in "Why Dogs Do That" says, "There are no strings attached, no riders, or special stipulations; there's no fine print, no expiration date, no statute of limitations. They (dogs) love to a depth and degree that few of us, I fear, reciprocate."
Sometimes for a wounded warrior with his or her dog hope appears. It appears to give them courage, to do that thing that makes them afraid.
I find myself remembering my time with the warriors with PTSD in snapshot like moments. Struggles, tears, fears, courage, and smiles are often too powerful to fully comprehend. They are forceful, strong, intense, turbulent and ardent snapshots, never to be forgotten or taken for granted.
As I asked one soldier how he was doing, he said from a place deep within his heart and with great purpose and overwhelming simplicity, "Just fine now that 'Kelsie' is here." With a dog by their sides those mountains aren't quite as hard to climb. With a dog by their sides working to get back up after circumstances have kicked them down, whether physical or mental, there may just be times when they, as we all, have to learn to crawl again, one step at a time.
The wounds our warriors have will become a part of who they are. It is those who are courageous that will become victorious; those who press forward, often one grueling step at a time. They will be blessed to find they are stronger, more compassionate, more loving, more understanding, more giving and in the end will receive more than they ever imagined. So if a dog named "Paxil," with intuitive and endearing ways, provides a bit of hope and help in whatever mystical way he does...who am I to question it?
"Just living is not enough.
One must have sunshine, freedom, and a little flower."
~Hans Christian Anderson~
"He has taught me the meaning
of devotion. With him, I know a secret comfort and a private peace. He
has brought me understanding where before I was ignorant. His head on my
knee can heal my human hurts. His presence by my side is protection
against my fears of dark and unknown things. He has promised to wait for
me, whenever, wherever, in case I need him. And I expect I will, as I
always have. He is my dog."
In everything that happens to us there is always that one person who is our boldest cheerleader. When we get stuck in the 'why, our road to healing also gets stuck. We all need a cheerleader, someone who believes in us and can help us get unstuck. It is then that we discover the wings of friendship, as together we dig deep through the loneliness and sorrows and stresses of life. This is no different from the bond between a wounded warrior and his dog.
"What a difference you've
made in my life. You're my sunshine day and night...you replaced all the
broken parts...what a change you have made in my heart...what a
difference you've made in my life..."
Cloudy genetics aren't an issue. Fine qualities
are. Sensitive, people-focused and hyper-observant dogs are qualities
that are looked for in a potential PTSD Support Dog. We look for dogs
who are able to untie the invisible threads that knot our wounded
warriors. Multi-dimensional dogs, if you will. Not bad qualities for
pound puppies! Our warriors want to rescue something and rescuing they
are, as their future PTSD Support Dogs are being saved from kill
shelters. These are dogs who ultimately must remain highly obedient,
calm, and unfailingly predictable in situations that can get chaotic in
Often our warriors returning home go from the battlefield one day to McDonalds the next. Perhaps, just perhaps, rescuing a shelter dog to rescue a soldier is part of the answer to reintegration. Train a Dog - Save a Warrior!
"It is a curious thing in
human experience but to live through a period of stress and sorrow with
another person creates a bond which nothing seems able to break."
Nelson Mandela has been quoted as saying, "It always seems impossible
until its done." For our wounded warriors in training for a Penny's From
Heaven Foundation/TADSAW Support Service Dog, the feelings are the same.
Being present for our Train A Dog-Save a Warrior PTSD Support Service Dog classes held in the large gazebo at the Warrior Family Support Center at Brooke Army Medical Center is a huge gift and blessing. To be witness to our wounded warriors, struggling knee deep through physical pain and grueling anxiety, as they work with their service dog-in-training, is humbling. I try to string the words together to explain these times, but I have learned to listen only to the action.
Dogs learning how to work beside a wheelchair, walker, or cane, slowly and in tune with their handler, is inspiring. Many of these warriors also have a Traumatic Brain Injury. This more often than not is accompanied by short term memory loss. Trying to remember the commands and implement them in a split second is not always easy. But the underlying reality is that they want to succeed. They want to learn. They want this dog by their sides. By their sides in the grocery store, a restaurant, a movie, anyplace. They have distinguished that this is worth doing. They know how they feel with this dog close by at all times. They know the difference it makes. So despite their physical pain and mental disruptions, they push through fearlessly. A grimace every once in a while accompanied by frustration, turns these men into warriors once again. They will succeed and they will win. Their lives, to some very great degree, depend on it, as they appear to be waiting to wake up from the pain, from the night terrors, from the anxiety. They too are no different than the rest of us. We all need to feel someone cares deeply for us, no matter what. As Erik Hoffer said, "It is loneliness that makes the loudest noise." With a PTSD Support Service Dog by their sides, the dark places are illuminated and loneliness disappears. For with this risk there is much more to be gained than lost.
The rough edges slowly are smoothed out and the dog becomes aware, sometimes awkwardly, how to read his warrior's needs and commands. They watch their faces closely for what is expected or required of them next. But this doesn't all happen quickly or easily. There are definite distractions, but habitual movements alert the dog to what is needed. They are giving passionate attention to the details surrounding them. Sometimes they win, sometimes they lose, but always they succeed. For each step is a step toward success, because ultimately, they really have no idea just how beneficial this will be for them.
"No trumpets sound when the important decisions of our life are made. Destiny is made known silently." ~Agnes De Mille
For these Soldiers, Airmen, Marines and Seamen that have come home from war with Post Traumatic Stress, recovering a sense of possibility, is all important. They have no payoffs for remaining stuck. Nor do they want them. What they want is to be rid of the demons that appear out of nowhere at anytime. They want a more normal existence. With a PTSD Support Service Dog trained just for them, this can and often does become a reality.
"Look and you will find it -
what is unsought will go undetected.
"Self control is about being in charge of the direction our lives are taking. Now for the paradox: We get control of our lives, ultimately, not by will power but by surrender."
~Lewis B. Smedes~
NOW IT IS UP TO THE DOGS
"The humans have tried everything. Now it is up to us dogs!"
You want to help and you aren't sure how. You find that the person home from war is not the same any more. You try everything. There are moments you are alone, frustrated, sad, angry and bitter. It is as if when you said goodbye, you really said goodbye.
A closed heart can become clogged. You try everything to open that heart
but it just doesn't work. You want to be kind and loving, but suddenly
you find an edge to your voice, and it escalates into anger. These are
the times when a nonjudgmental friend is needed to keep our warriors
balanced. They need to be given permission to feel all of their
emotions, including expressing anger in an appropriate manner. They need
someone to simply listen, as they express all of their issues with
dignity and grace. Finding this solitary place, a spot where they feel
safe, allows them to speak how they feel. They can write it, shout it,
pound it out, work with mental health professionals, go to the gym and
work it out, but sometimes, once everything has been tried, it just
might be time to leave it up to the dogs.
Seeking a place of healing is seeking a place of power. With nonjudgmental acceptance our warriors can come back to center once again. Maybe not the same center, but a new center. A center where they feel welcomed, where they can breathe, find energy, and loving resources around them. Working things out, working things through, taking steps, with your best friend beside you, are steps toward healing where fears can be released, and a place where they can be gentle with themselves and hopefully find a place where their souls can be at peace.
With their dog by their side the warriors don't have to rush, push, or try to force things forward. It doesn't work. Not anymore. Hurrying, or impatience, will not speed up the process, or their journey. The answer, our warriors with PTSD need to fully immerse themselves in the moments. What better way to do that than with a dog who is the epitome of exemplifying being immersed in the moment.
Thunder comes, storms come, and lightning flashes. And it is frightening. But storms don't last forever and with a dog by your side the damage can be minimal. And perhaps, just perhaps, when humans have tried everything, it is at that precise moment that it is up to the dogs!
"Just as nature plays out her storms, sometimes
with violence, sometimes with gray days, sometimes with a gentle
cleansing rain, we have storms in our lives, storms in our soul. Storms
are part of life, part of growth, part of the journey."
Cracks in the armor! We all have them. We all fight against them. And
sometimes the fight seems endless and all consuming, and, yes, sometimes
The written words of a soldier with multiple physical problems resulting from war, as well as acute PTSD, constantly ring in my head. "I'm going out of my mind. Nothing seems to be making any sense. I'm all alone and no one to lean on. I want out! I want out! Do you hear me screaming? This mess I can't deal with anymore and it echoes deep within my soul. Tomorrow, I won't remember a thing and my mind is trying, but nothing is coming....."
This is the sound of PTSD. It is here you see the rough edges of life after war.
We're all pretty much scared all the time. There is no shame in that. But when we're laughing on the outside and dying on the inside we need to be rescued. Sometimes our rescuer is a dog. A dog that will give us the confidence and courage and ability to face the future. A dog that somehow just slipped in and made us open our hearts when no one else could.
Wounded warriors with PTSD often find comfort in isolation. A PTSD Support Dog in essence becomes a band aid for loneliness. The dog, whose mission it is to help, has to be fed, walked, and attended to. More importantly this dog needs love and gives love. With a dog, the warrior with PTSD finds a secret comfort and a private peace. Sometimes a dog's head on a warrior's knee can heal many human hurts.
One soldier said, "The fight doesn't stop when you get home. It just begins." One statistic is that one third of the wounded are coming back with PTSD/TBI. Some are getting by with a little help from their friends. Some are literally being saved by them. The fear and anxiety producing results of war keep our warriors denying their emotions and ultimately denying reality. Their journey toward recovery is one step at a time. These small steps are easier with a nonjudgmental friend by their sides.
Gracie and 'her' favorite soldier, Michael, fell in love at first
sight. Their bond is deep. So much so that one of Michael's goals is to
get a dog of his own and train it to be a therapy dog to help other
soldiers, as Gracie has helped him.
Sometimes the pain of this reaction to a traumatic experience has no name. But a dog doesn't know what PTSD is and doesn't care. They love unconditionally. "It's no trick loving somebody at their best. Love is loving them at their worst." PTSD Support Dogs love our wounded warriors at their worst. Tom Stoddard hit the nail on the head when he said this. "We are all survivors of one sort of another and the reason we are on this earth is to help ease the pain of others. And in so doing we help ourselves."
The dogs are the catalysts to helping heal the cracks in the armor of our wounded warriors and placing flashlights in places where they can find them, as they enter a new world that once was called home. But they don't have to be its prisoners.
These are not just a war stories, but lessons in character, patriotism and devoted love to their country and to a relationship with a dog - a relationship that is defined by trust and sustained through grief, loss and change.
"Pain is inevitable - but
M. Scott Pick - The Road Less Traveled
With luck and a lot of work, the wounded warrior comes to realize that perhaps strength doesn't reside in having never been broken, but in the courage required to grow strong in the broken places.
"Thinking is not the enemy - over thinking is." Julia Cameron
Sometimes we find love and the very best medicine right under our noses.
"Being able to have my four legged best friend by my side through this
training is just an amazing thing. She has always been there for me and
been able to help me as a comfort dog. After this training she will
always be able to be
by my side. I will not have to worry so much about
what I am about to do because of a panic attack. I will know I have
Cocoa by my side to help me through my everyday tasks I found difficult
to do before. I won’t always worry and be on guard, because I will have
my best friend by my side."
SFC Andrew's words came from his heart on the eve of his first training
class for his rescue dog Cocoa to become his certified PTSD Support Dog
through Penny's From Heaven Foundation's TRAIN A DOG - SAVE A WARRIOR
PROGRAM. Diagnosed with TBI/PTSD Andrew had not been able to drive a
vehicle since his vehicle was 'hit' by an IED in Iraq two years ago.
That is until the night of his first dog training class. This night he
drove! He and Cocoa together navigated forty five minutes in a rain
storm in rush hour traffic alone. He did have a mild flashback,
looked at Cocoa snuggled close to me on the front seat and she looked up
at me and seemed to be telling me that I was going to be okay." Anxiety
and paranoia dissipated. All because of a seventy-seven pound four year
old Chocolate Lab!
Perhaps the lesson here is that sometimes we have to embrace what we already have. And sometimes that just might be that we have to pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and put our love and trust in a dog named Cocoa. Cocoa makes Andrew feel more alive, more independent, more the guy he was before he went to Iraq. Andrew is smart. He is paying attention to the messages in his life. He is awakening and no longer allowing fear to control his emotions. Cocoa listens and understands.
Together they are beginning the journey toward recovery and coping with PTSD and TBI, one step at a time. For Andrew, recovery is a mindset, a decision. Together they will accomplish great things. And I believe that were he to write a list of the one hundred things he loves most, Cocoa would be at the top.
"Peace begins with a smile."
One very early morning, I received a phone call. The voice at the
other end was trembling, as a man whispered, "I need help."
This American soldier, living in a cabin in the woods in Pennsylvania, needed help getting his little dog, his "lifeline, his battle buddy," certified to be his service dog for severe PTSD. I spoke with him for an hour and gave him what information I could to assist.
I encouraged him, I listened to him, and to a great degree I understood him.
He had been deployed three times, was awarded two Purple Hearts, two
Bronze Stars, two Silver Stars, and acute PTSD. Today and everyday, he
is unable to leave the protection and isolation of the woods. He had
gone into isolation to hide, to heal. Whether he knew it or not, he was
taking the first step to saving his own life. Staying in his 'bunker'
would lead to more depression, and ultimately, he might not be able to
get out by himself. He had tiptoed out just long enough to ask for help.
And all because of the love of a little dog.
This twenty pound dog affords him the courage to go into public, to be visible to the world, to not crawl back into his 'bunker' alone. The only thing he was asking for, after all he sacrificed, was to be able to take his 'battle buddy' into places like Wal-Mart to make him feel safe. Safe from the demons, terrors, flashbacks, and mental 'replays' in which he sees, hears, feels, smells, tastes every aspect of the war he can't leave behind.
He doesn't know how to be happy. There is no joy in his life. For him there is little reason to live, except for this little dog that carries the leash that, hopefully, will guide him out of his 'bunker.'
The Marine Corps phrase of "we take care of our own" is literal. Perhaps only a veteran can walk a veteran out of his 'bunker'. Perhaps in this case this veteran is a little dog named Buddy.
After all this warrior did to protect us, is this too much to ask?