Thursday, February 2, 2012

Service Dogs for PTSD and TBI

Local program offers service dogs to those with PTSD and TBI

Camp Murray initiative helps vets

Georgie, a yellow lab is undergoing training to become a service dog to a local veteran with PTSD or TBI symptoms. /Courtesy photo

Amee Gilbert's son attempted suicide at the start of this year. The Army specialist suffered from rage, nightmares and anxiety following a deployment to Iraq. Months of medical intervention following his suicide attempt did little to help, Gilbert said.
The first time she saw a flicker of hope for her son, however, was when he asked for a service dog.
Service dogs are generally thought of as assisting those with physical disabilities such as vision problems, spinal cord injuries, paralysis, and other conditions that impair mobility.  But they can also help those with such invisible disabilities as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and traumatic brain injuries.
The Joint Service Support Center (J9) on Camp Murray has recently launched a new program to provide service dogs to veterans suffering from these types of injuries. In addition to companionship, support and a soothing presence, the dogs are specially trained to get help in emergencies, retrieve items, act as barriers, provide physical stability and more. Furthermore, "the service dog plays a crucial role in the emotional stability of the veteran," according to information in the application packet.
Having a service dog "makes it easier to reintegrate into society and allows you to socialize," said a staff sergeant from Joint Base Lewis-McChord with PTSD who has had his dog, a blue heeler named Sidney, for about four months. "It gives you a sense of belonging."  The soldier declined to be identified.
Development of the program began about six months ago. Spearheading the movement was Aaron McCarthy, transition service coordinator at the J9, and Shirley Schmunk, a Gold Star Mother and Washington National Guard Survivor Outreach Services coordinator. The program began as an avenue to give Gold Star family members a connection back to the military, McCarthy said, as well as a way for qualified veterans with PTSD and TBI to receive service dogs quickly.
A team of 14 volunteers is working to make the program a reality. In addition to McCarthy, Schmunk, Gilbert and other members from the JSS, volunteers include representatives from the Tacoma Veterans Center; the Washington Department of Veterans Affairs; The Gratitude Campaign; the Pet Brigade on JBLM; animal behavior consultant Wendy Dahl; Gold Star family member Susan Whitman; and Luis Carlos Montalvan, a retired Army captain with severe PTSD who advocates for service dogs for servicemembers.
The program already has two fully certified service dogs in place and recently received its first puppy, a yellow Labrador retriever named Georgie. In addition to basic commands such as "sit" and "stay," Georgie will learn specific tasks such as "hug," in which she will lay across her soldier's lap, and "post," in which she stands between the soldier and someone else. Training will take up to 18 months.
"(We're) not only going to get soldiers with PTSD and TBI, we're going to service all veterans," McCarthy said. And all veterans are eligible. "That's the beauty of it," McCarthy said, "I don't care if it's a Korean War vet. It doesn't matter to me. With the JSS, we will not turn away any veteran."
Funding for the program currently comes through donations, and McCarthy is working to establish a nonprofit 501 (c) 3 status to help with costs.
"Restoring (servicemembers) independence is the ultimate goal," said McCarthy. "If I can give one dog to a veteran and get that veteran some of his motivation back, something to live for, some drive, then I've done my job."
The new program is "fantastic," said Gilbert, whose son now has a service dog named Silas.  "It's brought another dimension to who we can help. Not just active duty, every branch ... anyone who's suffering. We want to help everyone, no matter where they came from or why."
For more information about the new program, e-mail McCarthy at or call (253) 512-1351.
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