It’s no surprise the transition for veterans in the United States Armed Forces from military life to civilian life can be challenging.
This Able Veteran, a not-for-profit group in Carbondale, is dedicated to helping veterans through its Trauma Resiliency Program. The program produces reliable post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) service dogs and an effective partnership-building training program. Veterans who graduate from this program leave with a canine partner they can depend on to help them recognize early symptoms of nightmare, anxiety, anger or depression. The dogs are trained to intervene, to help their veteran partners refocus and to engage in soothing behavior.
“They learn new ways of bouncing back from the life-altering trauma they’ve experienced,” Behesha Doan, executive director and training director at This Able Veteran, said. “They start again to empower them to connect with their families once again, get to back to school, get back to work and really start to heal.”
She said there is also a component of dealing with invisible pain, which to an onlooker looks the same.
“They often hear things like you don’t look like you’ve been injured, but when you’re dealing with psychological trauma, there is profound pain and debilitating pain that you can experience,” Doan said. “Learning how to deal with that pain and learning how to become stronger for it, that is part of the trauma resilience program.”
On Sept. 10, the veterans met their service dogs for the first time. Throughout the next three weeks, the veterans will learn and understand how to see the world through their dogs’ eyes and how to work successfully with their dogs.
Doan said the dogs go through training as young as eight weeks old to interrupt early signs of anxiety or other triggers involving veterans adjusting to civilian life. She said the dog makes it where veterans can go to social events and feel comfortable because their dog is there. The animal is able to let the veteran know if they are showing signs of anxiety, which will translate to the veteran taking stock of what is happening and establishing self-control instead of needing to vacate the situation.
Before the animals meet their veterans, they are already aware of signs of anxiety, Doan said.
“When the dogs begin to recognize the physical markers, like a bouncing knee, grooming gestures or shorting breathing, they start to recognize those markers before anxiety gets out of control,” she said.
JoeBrad McKenzie of San Diego, California, started in the program in April 2016 after 25 years in the U.S. Army. He said he received his service dog, Nienna, after what he called “a lot of denial.”
He said his wife was the one who discovered service dogs and throughout the research, the couple came across This Able Veteran. He said he had an application for about six months before filling it out, convincing himself he didn’t need to do it.
“Finally, I reached a point where I said I need to make some changes,” McKenzie said.
He said Nienna has completely changed him.
“One of the things it does is that it’s not just about me anymore,” he said. “I have to look out for her (Nienna) — not just for me, but for her. If I’m going through issues, she’ll pull me out of it. I have to realize there is more to life than me. Whatever you put into the animal, they’ll give back to you.”
On Sept. 21, at Southern Illinois Airport, the veterans and dogs will fly together on flights facilitated by SIU faculty and students. On Sept. 29, at 5:30 p.m., at Black Diamond Harley-Davison Event Center in Marion, This Able Veteran will host a graduation ceremony for the veterans and animals. Doan said this is the “transfer of the leash” ceremony. The trainers who have had the dogs for 18 months will give the leash to the veteran.
“It doesn’t end here,” Doan said. “This is where a lot of skills are gained, a lot of trauma is faced, but the work begins after they leave here.”
For more information about This Able Veteran, visit thisableveteran.org, call 618-751-3662 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.