There is something about serving in war, when you know you have a calling to be there, that makes it difficult to return to civilian life. But it is not just the calling. Jim Stanek describes coming home after volunteering for a three months special operations unit. “It was fine coming home, but I wanted to feel normal and signed up for a third tour.” When Jim talks about feeling normal at war rather than at home, he is talking about the adrenalin rush, the purpose of the mission, and the constant sensory overload of war. This can disappear in the relatively silent and mundane routine of civilian life. It may eventually leave a soldier with a feeling that he has no purpose and with the psychological impact of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a devastating and silent enemy. Although he didn’t yet know it, this silent enemy was plaguing Jim.
After Jim’s third tour, he stayed in the hospital to recover from the severe experiences of both his third and four tours. He was treated with a host of medications and multiple therapeutic interventions. None worked to relieve his PTSD symptoms. Some classic PTSD symptoms may include intrusive flashbacks, nightmares, heightened awareness, and startle responses.
However, he had the opportunity to spend one day with a service dog. The dog was the first treatment that brought him some relief. Yet his research revealed that service dogs were out of his price range. This experience began Jim’s journey towards learning how dogs could be rescued from shelters and trained as service dogs as companions to forgotten veterans.
Imagine a shopping mall. People, lights, noises, movement, stimulus surround you. Even civilians who have never been to war find it a stressful environment. Now imagine that level of stress times ten or more. Imagine a soldier walking through the streets of Kabul when a shot rings out. He has no idea where it came from. One of his men dies in his arms. He cannot fire back. Then, follow this soldier back home to a shopping mall. Understand that in this environment, he will be searching for every potential threat, wondering what is going to go wrong, and where the enemy is hiding. It sends his hyper vigilance through the roof. Then, give this soldier a well-trained dog to accompany him. The dog picks up 180 degrees of vision, lets him know when someone is too close, or when something isn’t right. Other people respect the dog’s personal space.
“This is how it works when you get thrown into the mix of civilian life as former combat soldier after serving time in Kabul. These dogs help,” says Jim.
Jim served four tours in Iraq. He and his wife, Lindsey, founded Paws and Stripes as a result of Jim’s first experience with a service dog. Together, they’ve developed a program that provides canine therapy using rescued and trained service dogs for military veterans who suffer from PTSD and/or Traumatic Brain Injury. The program is free for veterans. All veterans choose their own dogs from local shelters and each veteran participates in the training process. The training process takes six months and includes behavioral and psychological training for both dogs and humans.
Dogs are custom-trained to the unique needs of each individual veteran. Currently there are seven men and one woman enrolled in the program, with three graduates. A trauma therapist also sees program attendees to evaluate PTSD symptoms. Lindsey is currently conducting a pilot research study. Initial results indicate a significant decrease in symptoms overall. More data will be forthcoming, after a Traumatic Brain Injury expert on staff examines the results. Paws and Stripes has doubled the number of veterans they are serving and has recently been featured on national television.
The small, big hearted organization grew out of one couples’ need to find a solution for the devastating effects of (PTSD) that were ruling their lives after Jim’s return from Iraq. Jim describes Lindsey as his rock. Lindsey shares how Paws and Stripes and Sarge, Jim’s personal service dog, have changed their lives.
“Without Sarge, his overall level of anxiety was extremely high. He was constantly at a ten, angry and stressed. If he couldn’t get out of those states, he would end up in flashbacks, blackouts, or he would disassociate. One day we were driving in his truck and he stopped an entire line of traffic because of a yard sale sign box that he believed was a bomb.”
Jim talks about being in Wal-Mart. A flat of water bottles fell. Jim responded by yelling at everyone to get down. People were telling him he was a crazy war vet. “I was mortified,” explains Jim. “I just dropped my cart and left.”
Since Sarge arrived in Jim’s life, he has learned to be calm as the dog does not respond well to agitated behavior. Sarge is able to signal Jim if he is about to have a flashback as dogs are extremely sensitive to biochemical changes in human beings. Once a trained service dog experiences the veteran going through the flashback, or any other PTSD symptom, the animal becomes concerned and alerts the owner. Sarge is trained to tap Jim on the leg, giving him a prompt to prepare for the use of additional coping skills.
“When this occurs I have to refocus all my attention because I don’t want my dog to act out in public. I tell myself I am okay, I’ve got it and we can move on.”
Jim is moving on. There was a time when, without the support of a service dog, he was crouched on the kitchen floor holding an imaginary gun and shooting at what he believed to be a real enemy. Lindsey was there to gently take the gun away and guide him through the episode. Today, they are working together to help other veterans who have served their country move on to a life worth living.
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