A well-trained service dog can mean the difference between life and death for veterans who struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Sadly, many combat vets struggle with depression and PTSD after coming home, leading to a staggering rise in suicides nationwide. As a vet himself, Dave Hughes of Georgetown, Illinois understands PTSD better than most people. In 2016, he and some friends at the American Legion Dornblaster Post 203 decided they had to help.
In 2016, the 62-year-old Coast Guard veteran proposed that Post 203 raise money to buy a service dog for a veteran with PTSD. His fellow American Legion members were enthusiastic about the idea, and although they set a goal to raise $15,000 to train one dog, the community donated enough for two service animals instead!
After that victory, they became determined to match more specially trained service animals with as many struggling vets as possible. They started Mission K9 Warrior, and Dave and a panel of 10 other volunteers use community donations to screen applicants to match them with their dogs.
All service dog recipients must be combat vets and able to care for a dog. Once matched, the dogs are trained by Midwest Professional Canine Services to help with specific triggers and issues in their human companions.
As an added bonus, most of the dogs in this program were adopted from shelters. Dogs can help their humans cope with anything from depression and anxiety to serious panic disorders.
To date, Mission K9 Warrior has placed 18 dogs with area veterans! Each dog has made a huge impact on their veteran’s life, and seeing the love between them makes all of the hard work worthwhile for Dave and his friends.
“Without exception, every veteran comments on what a dog has done for them, and when they do, I cannot tell you — it makes my heart smile,” Dave told People. “Every time the veteran meets his dog for the first time, I cry.”
Neal Stephens of Fithian, Illinois was in a very dark place before he got his service dog from Mission K9 Warrior. He did two tours in Iraq with the Army National Guard, and when he retired after 21 years of service, he admits to having “very dark, suicidal thoughts.”
“I separated myself from people,” he said. “It was just a very depressing, bad time for me. The demons of deployment caught up to me.”
A counselor suggested a service animal, and he was matched with a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois who has changed his life completely. His dog is trained to keep people away from him in crowded situations, sense when his anxiety and depression are rising and nudge him with her nose to distract him, and most importantly, to be his constant companion, even riding on the back of his motorcycle with him!
“The biggest thing she does is I’m never alone,” Neal said. “She’s always with me; 24 hours a day she’s with me.”
Neal has now joined Mission K9 Warrior on the board of directors, so now he can help match other vets with dogs, too.
“It hugely, hugely helps me,” he said of joining the mission. “Being part of this team gives me the ability to feel my worth.”
Many veterans have told Dave that their service dog saved their lives! There’s no doubt that these animals provide a powerful service for their humans. We wish we could give every veteran a service animal to ease their transition to civilian life.
Share this story to increase awareness for veterans with PTSD and the service animals that save them.
If you or a loved one in the United States are considering suicide, you can dial 988 to contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline.
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