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Vets find hope in canine Battle Buddies

Vietnam war veteran Phil Carroll says Rimfire, a gentle German shepherd, has saved him time and again from horrific war nightmares.

Forty-four years ago, Carroll worked with sentry dogs in Southeast Asia. He guarded military base perimeters and high value targets. He saw war hellfire that he doesn’t want to talk about. Since then, he’s suffered years of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rimfire rescued him.

Like 32 other combat vets with PTSD, Carroll found that a nonprofit agency called Northwest Battle Buddies, headquartered in Battle Ground, Wash., offered him a dog that senses his anxiety and stress. Rimfire has been his constant companion since they finished their training in October.

“Most of the symptoms of PTSD are invisible to people,” said Carroll, 68, a one-time Idaho newspaper photographer who now lives in Gladstone. “Sometimes you don’t even know when it’s happening, but the dogs can sense that. When that happens and the dog jumps up and starts licking your face, or puts paws on your chest when you are having a nightmare, you can’t help but smile.”

Battle Buddies founder and president Shannon Walker said she’s seen dogs transform the lives of many PTSD-troubled vets, giving them the strength to lead normal lives. She wants to expand her nonprofit to help 60 veterans each year. There’s no cost to the vets. Dogs and their care are donated, as are funds to run the agency.

Dogs help veterans relax and realize they are no longer in danger. Dogs interrupt recurring flashbacks of horrific events, or nightmares. Dogs help vets sleep better and shed feelings of numbness, tension, anxiety and depression, owners say.

Dogs even can lead owners away from suicidal thoughts.

Walker and her one staff person, Teresa Morkert, have joined with 10 volunteers to help vets with PTSD from all over the Portland metro area, and some from as far away as Wyoming, to train with dogs.

Counselors at the Portland Department of Veterans Affairs recognize that dogs help. They suggested that Carroll seek out Battle Buddies.

Long-term study underway

Portland VA counselors declined to talk publicly about dogs and PTSD. They referred calls to the leaders of an ongoing $12 million national VA study of vets with PSTD and dogs. The VA is in the fifth year of a study to establish the efficacy of pairing PTSD dogs with vets, said Michael Fallon and Patricia Dorn, two study leaders.

“The study is looking to determine if vets having a service dog or an emotional support dog for PTSD should be added to the benefits paid to veterans,” said Dorn, director of the VA’s rehabilitation research and development service. The VA already pays for vets hiring service dogs to help with “evidence- based” needs such as for hearing, blindness or mobility issues.

“We are trying to understand through tests and questionnaires if having a dog for PTSD helps a vet to function, to interact with family, the world, employment, heath care, or suicidal ideation,” Dorn said. “Is the vet with PTSD better able to function in life because they have one of these dogs?”

The VA estimates that PTSD afflicts almost 31 percent of Vietnam veterans, 10 percent of Iraq vets and 11 percent of Afghanistan vets. Some 350,000 Afghanistan and Iraq vets and 271,000 Vietnam vets have been diagnosed with PTSD.

In this year’s phase of the study, the VA has signed up 107 veterans at three sites nationally: Portland, Iowa City, and Atlanta.

In the meantime, Battle Buddies operates from donations, including an auction that recently netted $111,000.

How it works

The dogs that Walker trains include German shepherds, pit bulls, Labradors and golden retrievers. Most come from Clackamas County Dog Services and some come from the Clark County Humane Society. Orchards Veterinary Clinic of Vancouver, Wash., provides free care for the animals, which go through seven months of training. Veterans take two months of training to work with and care for the dogs.

A professional dog trainer for 20 years, Walker, 49, started Battle Buddies four years ago out of the same facility where she runs her for-profit business, Man’s Best Friend.

“I love America, and I love veterans,” she said. She was motivated as a child when her late father, Korean War vet Glen Walker, told her all veterans are heroes. She has twin sons, Jacob and Jarod Kendall. Jacob is on duty with the Army in South Korea and Jarod is in the Marines in Okinawa.

“These dogs represent hope, freedom and independence and a new future for the vets,” she said.

Walker regularly takes vets and dogs on training runs to malls and major stores in the Vancouver area.

On a recent trip, she took a half dozen dog-vet pairs to the Vancouver Mall, drawing smiles and compliments from shoppers.

“Working with these vets just makes our heart swell,” said Tana Hunziker of Amboy, a volunteer at Battle Buddies. “When these guys go to the mall with their dog for the first time, you wouldn’t believe the amount of courage it takes them to face their worst nightmares — crowds, noise, their fear.”

The vets expressed relief during the mall trip.

Testimonials

Travis Cottrell, 31, of Vancouver said he was working to overcome the crushing grief he felt after finding his 27-year-old roommate, former Navy Corpsman and Iraq vet Jeffrey Allen Paullin, had committed suicide in their Vancouver apartment.

Cottrell was shot at and blown up in Afghanistan, suffered traumatic brain injury and also saw buddies die.

“I just wanted to start living my life again,” said Cottrell, who took part in a PTSD recovery program in Colorado before picking up his dog, Ranger, at Battle Buddies. “It really put me on track, and I want to live my life. Instead of PTSD driving me, I’ll be the driver and it can sit in the passenger seat.”

Retired Army Staff Sgt. John Kaiser, 37, of Camas, Wash., said he loves living with his chocolate Labrador, Ruger. Kaiser lost an eye and suffered head wounds in 2006 while on duty in Baghdad.

He’s had Ruger for three years, helping him lead a normal life, relieving suffering from emotional and mental trauma, stress and anxiety. He volunteers at Battle Buddies now, with the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and takes other vets salmon fishing.

“I got injured in Iraq, and it made it so I couldn’t be in the infantry any more,” Kaiser said. Starting in 2003, he did two tours in Iraq.

Matt O’Neill, 37, a truck driver from Vancouver, got his golden retriever, Cadence, in late April. Hit by concussion from a car bomb, he suffered traumatic brain injury and PTSD. “My injury is all brain rattle,” he joked with a wry smile.

“I love working with a dog,” he said. “I know this one guy I talked to, he actually contemplated suicide because of his issues and, since he got his dog, he hasn’t thought about it. Now he is just enjoying life, getting out, where he used to stay in his house and never wanted to leave.”

Another veteran, 69-year-old Doug Schruth, of Winchester, was a dog handler during the Vietnam War, and was glad to have a dog to work with again.

“They wouldn’t let me bring a dog home,” he said. “Those were sentry dogs for the Army and they were a lot different, trained to kill.” The Battle Buddies dogs are the opposite: caregivers and companions.

Mike Dier, 71, of Banks, served in the Navy off the coast of Vietnam during the war. He was a cook and a boiler tender, a 19-year-old sailor aboard a destroyer radar picket ship that nearly rolled over in a typhoon. He almost drowned, and saw a lot of explosions and fire, leaving him with PTSD. After the war, he drove a bus in Seattle.

His dog, a golden retriever called Kansas, led him gently through the Vancouver Mall during a recent training session.

“He’s a good one,” Dier said, with a big grin. “Helps a lot.”