Invisible Wounds

What stress does to the soul

Tail of a (Service) Dog

Service dog brings peace to a troubled vet.

“JP brings me peace,” says Bill Austin, a retired warrior whose memories have tended to be less than peaceful.

After three decades of serving as a medic and/or a radio operator in places like Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq and Afghanistan (twice), this retired master sergeant remembers things like loading a guy who’d been blown up twice in five minutes onto a stretcher and not recognizing one of his best friends until the body on the stretcher suddenly said, “Hey mate.”

“And I said, ‘Mark, is that you?’ Later that day I went back to see him, and the bed was empty; I was afraid he’d died,” says Austin. “Later, I found out they medivacced him out, but I remember going back to see a lot of other guys that I’d helped, only to be told they died of their wounds.”

After retiring from the National Guard with a 100 percent diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), Austin found it hard to turn off the mindset that had kept him alive as he dealt with the carnage from the killing fields: the burns, broken bodies, shattered limbs and multiple amputations that regularly confront medics.

“He’s hyper-vigilant,” says his wife, Janet Austin. “He has to sit with his back to the wall, and he doesn’t like to be in crowded spaces. If someone comes up behind him, he turns in a protective posture to see what you’re up to.”

But peace came in the form of a 2-year-old Great Dane named JP, a 150-pound service dog with a harness that says “PTSD – not all disabilities are visible.” 

JP pulls Austin out of their house near the Mission Mountains of Montana for regular walks, and people generally stop to talk about the unusual-looking dog.  “He’s a natural ice-breaker,” Janet says. “When someone’s coming toward Bill, he steps between them to provide a safety zone. And when someone’s coming up behind him, he provides advanced warning that someone’s there.”

JP even knows when Austin is having nightmares, says Janet, and he’ll wake Austin out of a troubled sleep by licking his face.

“I’ve had a lot of road rage because there’s too much stimulus and my brain can’t handle it fast enough. It’s sensory overload. But now when I drive, JP puts his head in my lap and I pet him and I hear his gentle breathing and it’s very peaceful,” says Austin.

JP was provided by a breeder in North Carolina, and the Austins trained him themselves as a service dog. They estimate they’ve spent close to $5,000 on him over the first two years. CHAPS (Canines Helping Autism and PTSD Survivors) estimates that a 75-pound service dog will cost at least $4,000 for the first year and more than $2,000 a year thereafter.

Many civic organizations recognize the importance of dogs in stabilizing vets’ mental health. Companions 4 Heroes (C4H) has provided vets with about 150 shelters dogs that would otherwise have been euthanized, says its executive director, Lynne Gartenhaus. “The care and nurturing of an animal brings a veteran to a different place,” she adds. “The animal gives the vet something to think about other than what’s always going through his head.”

But C4H doesn’t train many service dogs. That training can be expensive and difficult, both for the dog and for the vet. “You’re dealing with two very fragile and vulnerable entities,” says Gartenhaus. “It’s really complicated, both for the dog and for the veteran.”

The VA doesn’t provide service dogs either, although it will pay for veterinary care and equipment for some service dogs owned by vets who are blind or who can’t walk. A VA regulation printed last September in the Federal Register does not provide for service dogs to vets suffering from PTSD.  

“VA does not cover psychiatric service dogs,” says Janet. “They’ve done studies, but there’s not enough evidence to justify it. They’ll cover seeing-eye dogs and mobility dogs, but not psychiatric service dogs.”

To Janet, however, that evidence was clear on the second day that JP bounded into their lives.  “Janet said, ‘Don’t you get it? This is the first time in two years that you’ve smiled and laughed,’ ” Austin says.

“JP was still a puppy then, and I said, ‘He brings me peace.’ ”

 

           

Eric Newhouse is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of Alcohol: Cradle to Grave and Faces of Combat: PTSD and TBI.

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