Dogs helping injured soldiers under government program
By Alysia Patterson
FORT CARSON, Colo. — Army Specialist Cameron Briggs washes down a cocktail of prescription drugs every day for post-traumatic stress disorder and a brain injury he suffered when four roadside bombs rocked his Humvee in Iraq.
Tramadol for pain. Midrin for debilitating headaches. Minipress to suppress nightmares. Klonopin to control anger and anxiety.
His next dose of treatment will come from an unlikely source: a purebred Golden Retriever.
A new Veterans Administration program adopts dogs from animal shelters, trains them and matches them with wounded warriors home from Iraq and Afghanistan to help with their recovery.
For Briggs, his dog will be trained to help him find his wallet, cell phone and keys, which he habitually loses because of cognitive memory loss. The dog also will brace Briggs, who has an ankle injury, so he doesn’t have to use a cane or walker in public.
"I call him my little battle buddy," the 24-year-old Briggs said as he strapped his old camouflage assault vest onto Harper. It’s modified to store biscuits and toys instead of ammunition. "I most definitely think he’ll help me transfer back to civilian life."
VA hospitals nationwide are integrating service dogs into treatment plans for disabled vets, said Will Baldwin, a vocational rehabilitation counselor for the VA in Denver. The program was formed after Freedom Service Dogs, a Denver-based nonprofit, recently partnered with the VA.
Training takes up to nine months and costs $23,000. Service Dogs doesn’t charge its clients but relies on private donations and foundation grants.
"The population is growing exponentially down in Fort Carson with the Wounded Warriors program," said Freedom Service Dogs’ Diane Vertovec, referring to the Army unit that prepares wounded soldiers for civilian life. "We feel like a dog can help a vet meet physical challenges but, more importantly, can really, really help them overcome a lot of the mental instability that they’re feeling."
Service Dogs can train 43 dogs per year — a number that doesn’t come close to meeting demand. There are about 450 soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Fort Carson.
David Watson, a 43-year-old Gulf War veteran who lives in Strasburg, about 40 miles east of Denver, gets out of bed every morning with the help of Summer, a trained yellow lab. Watson’s knees were injured in the war, and daily tasks are painful.
Baldwin suggested Watson get a service dog so he also could take better care of his wife, Trish, a Navy veteran who has multiple sclerosis and uses a wheelchair.
"The relationship is just one big circle. We just keep helping each other out," said Watson. "If I can’t roll over or get out of bed, (Summer) will have a little toy that she uses and she’ll pull me up. It’s a tug-of-war game for her."
"Get shoe, Summer!" Watson commands. Summer drops them at his bedside so he can slip them on without bending.
Summer also helps Watson navigate a world that doesn’t always accommodate his disabilities.
"Uneven ground — she will notice that before I do and she will either nudge me over or step in front of me so I don’t trip," Watson said.
Key, an 8-month-old mixed black Labrador puppy, is being trained to open and close doors, get food from the fridge, alert bark, pick up keys and other items and brace to provide support.
Key’s biggest service might be to "just snug up to a person in bed, which sometimes is very comforting, especially for someone that might have PTSD," said head trainer Patti Yoensky. "Just knowing that the dog’s there helps the person feel more confident, feel that they’re not alone."
At Fort Carson, Briggs hopes that Harper will help him adjust. "I don’t like large crowds of people," Briggs said, alluding to a PTSD symptom. "I get really fidgety and I just hate it. So anytime a stranger comes into your personal bubble, the dog will always stand between you and the stranger."
Stephanie Baigent, manager of dog training at Service Dogs, believes that Harper can give Briggs something "unconditional that a lot of us can’t give, because no matter what we hear about Cameron or his experiences, we can’t fully understand.
"Harper doesn’t have to understand. He just loves Cameron because he’s Cameron," she said.