Canine companions give hope to veterans with PTSD #worldsuicidepreventionday
It was a hot day in Portland, Oregon, when I spoke with Scott, a veteran who had served two tours in Saudi Arabia in the Air Force in the 1990s. His service dog, Nikki, a 22-month-old English black Labrador retriever, sat with him. "He thinks he's a lap dog," said Scott of his 80-lb "closest friend," who has been an important part of his life for four months now.
On June 25, 1996, there was a terrorist attack on his base at Khobar Towers that killed 19 people. "I survived that and felt like I was fine initially. Naturally, I would react to slamming doors or crowds, and I was hypervigilant in my daily life," he said. He thinks it's odd, but other people told him that all the memories of that day were buried in him.
It wasn't till 2020, when Covid took over the world, that terms like "lockdown" started to trigger him as it was often used at his base during the bombing. "There were a lot of fires in the Northwest during that time, and the smell of smoke and the riots became triggers of the time in 1996."
Scott was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2021. He started medication to help with his emotions of depression and anxiety when he saw a mental health professional on his brother's advice. "I am a Christian, a believer, and a licensed minister, and I believe in the total health of a person- physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual," he said. He added that he feels the issue needs more attention.
According to the World Health Organization, there are more than 700,000 suicides yearly, and veterans are "1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than nonveteran adults," per the American Psychological Association.
"Creating Hope Through Action" is the triennial theme for the World Suicide Prevention Day from 2021-2023. This theme serves as a powerful call to action and reminder that there is an alternative to suicide and that through our actions we can encourage hope and strengthen prevention (via World Health Organization).
In early 2022, Scott learned about the non-profit organization Northwest Battle Buddies (NWBB), which pairs veterans with PTSD with service dogs. Their success rate for preventing suicide is 100% among the 212+ service dogs who have become an integral part of their lives.
Founder Shannon Walker, whose father was also a veteran who served during the Korean War, started NWBB 12 years ago after training a dog for Kevin, a veteran who came to her for-profit business. "I've helped many people with dogs and even service dogs, but I had never had an experience like the one I had with Kevin. When it was time for him to start training his dog, I saw him do for her what he was not willing to do for himself, and I saw him find the courage to go places with her; he was afraid to go alone," said Walker. When other veterans learned about Kevin's experience training his pet dog to be a service dog, more veterans came to Walker to train their dogs.
NWBB is a nationwide program that is currently running in 23 states. The dogs are trained for five months, and the veterans come in and train for five weeks with the dogs. Only upon passing the tests- the service dogs are 100% gifted to the veterans. Training a dog costs $25,000, and the organization entirely relies on donors' generosity.
At first, when Scott learned about the organization, he felt another veteran with a more prominent need should get the dog, but now he encourages all veterans with PTSD to consider getting a service dog. He is a big advocate for NWBB and called the organization "professional, compassionate to the needs of veterans, and highly skilled at training the dogs to match with the veteran."
Scott & Nikki- Photo Courtesy of Scott
Scott said he has a lot in common with Nikki because they both like a lot of interaction and play while being disciplined at the same time. "There are areas where I am weaker where Nikki has the strengths. He provides me with a lot of confidence. I have challenges and see how sure he is of himself, which helps me."
He said when he starts to feel stressed, all he has to do is pet Nikki, and he can feel those negative feelings fading away. Nikki even knows how to wake Scott up from violent nightmares because the pup can tell when they're happening and starts licking his face, bringing him into the present to comfort him instantly.
"Sometimes, I need just to check out, and I will get down on the floor, and Nikki knows to curl up on my lap and provide me support at the moment," said Scott. He added that Nikki has helped his recovery time because it is much faster than before.
Scott added that there is a group text among the six veterans who "graduated" together with their service dogs, and they text each other almost every day, sharing pictures of their dogs and telling each other to keep hanging on during difficult days.
When I asked Scott if Nikki was his best friend, he said, "No, that title is reserved for my wife of 30 years! (He laughs). Nikki is my wingman in life, and he's always there. He is watching my back and leading the way at the same time."
He added that the responsibility of taking care of Nikki gives him more reasons in life to keep stepping forward. "The more time I spend thinking about taking care of Nikki, the less time I have to let my mind wander into things that can send my mental health spiraling down," he added.
At last, I asked Walker what her hope for the future was, and she said, "More veterans with more service dogs means more lives changed. We hope the day before they meet their service dog is their last worst day, and the day they meet their service dog, it's their best first day."
Photos 1,2 and 4 are courtesy of Northwest Battle Buddies and Photo 3 is courtesy of Scott.