What do you get when you put loving dogs, selfless trainers and veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder together? In many cases, a stepping stone to recovery.
Post-traumatic stress disorder afflicts more than 300,000 service members. Concern over its increase and impact continues to grow. Self-harm is now the leading cause of death for members of the Army. Every month nearly 1,000 discharged veterans attempt to take their own lives.
Lt. Commander Pamela Herbig Wall recently visited Naperville to participate in a community forum on PTSD. She noted that adjustment disorders include flashbacks and intrusive memories, trouble sleeping, alcohol abuse and problems re-establishing relationships with loved ones.
She likened a vet's wartime experiences to a person who runs across a bear in the woods. After that, "You're constantly looking for the bear," she said.
A variety of treatments to combat PTSD are being used and explored through the armed services. Brett Litz, a clinical psychiatrist in the VA Boston Healthcare System, said that the existing treatments often weren't enough to improve veterans' conditions.
Litz found an underlying sadness was the main thing he heard -- not just sadness related to loss, but also sadness he attributed to "bearing witness to evil and human suffering and seeing death and participating in it."
Dave Keeler is familiar with the trauma and sadness vets experience. He and his dog, a Goldendoodle named Magnolia, belong to "Divine Canines," an organization that brings service dogs to soldiers diagnosed with PTSD.
"This is important work," Keeler said. "We bring the skills the dogs naturally have to these men who have so bravely served this country.
"I come to the base to talk to the soldiers about fishing, reading, golf, anything other than Army. The dogs come to offer love -- it's part of their sweet nature. This is the power of love -- blessing both dog and soldier. And love heals," Keeler said.
One day, Keeler went to Fort Hood Military Base in central Texas to meet a soldier. He decided they should just sit on the grass and chat. He began talking, but the soldier did not respond. Maggie (the dog) just sat next to the soldier. Soon she rolled over on her back, placed her head upside down on his boot and looked up at him, wagging her tail.
The soldier smiled and began to talk. He told Keeler he grew up in the Louisiana bayou and loved to fish. They talked about fishing for quite a while, until Keeler asked the man if he would like to throw Maggie some balls.
He and Maggie played fetch and the soldier talked, smiled and laughed. "It was such an atmosphere of ease, love and comfort," Keller remarked.
After about an hour, the soldier had to go back to his barracks. He rubbed Maggie's head and thanked Keeler. After the two parted, an Army therapist came out and asked Keeler if he knew what had just happened.
"That soldier hasn't talked since he arrived here -- three months ago!" she exclaimed. She added that it was truly an amazing thing she had just witnessed and thanked him.
The love shown by these dogs and their trainers to soldiers all over the country is a key factor that helps veterans rebuild resiliency and learn that they can overcome the stresses, fear and sadness of deployment.
"Divine Canines" was formed in 2004 with a group of five handlers and dogs, and has grown to a staff of over 100 dog-handler teams. "Our success is based on two factors. First, there exists a deep, mysterious bond of healing between humans and their dogs. Second, dog enthusiasts are a responsible, dedicated and highly driven volunteer demographic," according to Divine Canines.
"Dogs need to be around people, and need to be loved," Keeler said, "but this work is not about us, it is about the person we are willing to help." The dogs, including Maggie, go through extensive training. She and Dave had to learn and practice obedience skills including no jumping, running around or being bothered by other dogs -- "…this is the dog's work," Keeler said.
Dr. Steven M. Southwick, M.D., has studied post-traumatic stress disorder for over 20 years. He is a co-author of the book, Resilience: The Science of Mastering Life's Greatest Challenges. He recently told USA Weekend magazine, "Resiliency is not just a genetic thing that you have or don't. Resiliency is something anyone can learn. We hope to demystify the process." Southwick identified 10 factors shared by people who bounce back most effectively from traumas, one of which is social support.
"Out of those factors, if I had to pick, I'd say social support is one of the most important in developing resiliency. Knowing you have someone to count on is essential", Southwick said. And even dogs, like Magnolia, can provide a glimpse into being able to count on someone that helps a soldier rebuild mental health.
• Thomas (Tim) Mitchinson is a self-syndicated columnist writing on the relationship between thought, spirituality and health, and the trends in that field. He is also the media and legislative spokesman for Christian Science in Illinois.