Dogs are incredible companions, but they can be more than that. In the canine kingdom, there are those charged with the mission of bringing love and comfort to a human with a physical or emotional challenge. These amazing creatures are born with a gentle temperament and high intelligence, and are trained in obedience and specific skills for the purpose of aiding their humans. They’re called service dogs, and the stories of the work they do are awe-inspiring.
David Benson, founder of Dogs Helping Heroes, knows the stories from firsthand and is spearheading a campaign to bring it to others. His goal is to provide much-needed emotional and physical assistance to veterans by pairing them with service dogs.
Since the organization began, over fifteen dogs have been placed— at no cost to recipients. “Kentucky State Reformatory inmates train the dogs for socialization and basic manners,” says Benson. “
Then my trainers and I teach them the key formal commands they need to know to succeed with their Heroes.”
It goes without saying that all these Heroes suffer serious physical maladies, but the emotional pain is the primary reason their guardians are by their sides. If the Hero feels threatened, the dog will turn toward the rear and guard his “six”, or their backs. When the Hero is triggered and becomes emotional, he or she can say, “at ease,” and the dog will jump on her chest, lick her face, or bark. Eventually, the dog recognizes “tells,” like his human breaking out into a sweat, shaking, or crying and provides comfort without a command. Their work is so successful that there is less than a two percent return rate.
The Country Duo
John Wells, a combat Corpsman, served in Vietnam at the tender age of 19, and the horrible sights he witnessed created a severe case of PTSD. “Getting shot at as I ran to pull guys from the line of fire was enough,” he says. “Not being able to save them pushed me to the brink.” John returned stateside a different person.
Among other great honors, John was awarded a Vietnam Service Ribbon with a Bronze Star, the fourth-highest individual military award— given for acts of heroism, acts of merit, or meritorious service in a combat zone. But his awards didn’t make his re-entry into civilian life any easier. John suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, chronic panic disorder, depression, Parkinson’s Disease, and psychosocial and environmental disorder.
Cash was a lifesaver. The affectionate all-black Lab/Dane mix came to John after his return to the States, as the nightmares and panic attacks peaked. As we chat, John’s legs never stop shaking, until Cash’s big black paw touches his leg to bring him comfort.
David Benson is teaching Cash to pick things up for John, something that’s become difficult for him to do for himself due to the ravages of Parkinson’s. John’s dreams are still too violent to share a bed, so his guardian sleeps on the floor next to him.
Fortunately, John’s family is nearby and Cash has alleviated some of the worst symptoms of his panic and depression. Now he’s paying it forward by telling the world about Dogs Helping Heroes, and organizing veterans’ events to bring attention to the soldiers who served.
Coming off the Edge
Jim Day is now 70 years old, but he was just a boy when he entered the Army near the end of the Vietnam War, serving as a rifleman and sniper.
The Army specialist fourth class earned many ribbons, including the Army Air Medal for flying at least 25 helicopter missions in combat. Jim is also a recipient of the hallowed Bronze Star medal. One soaking wet and muddy night, Jim shared a Hershey Bar with a “foxhole buddy,” just before their position started taking fire. “Bill took one and died right on the spot,” he says. “I can’t eat that chocolate to this day.” His wife Diane didn’t recognize the mistrustful, hyper-vigilant man who returned from Vietnam.
Then, while he was working as a police sergeant, a motorcyclist hit him head on and was killed. That was the beginning of the end for man who’d “sucked it up” too long. He installed doors all over his house, put cameras up, and paced the perimeters watching for the enemy every night. He was still fighting the war.
Until Samson joined the family. Jim constantly confides in the dog, who also sleeps with him to calm him in the terror of the night. Samson’s “at ease” command is to push his wet nose into Jim’s face to stop his visceral response. Diane, who has stuck through everything with her husband, is now acclimating to a dog in the house, in the bed, in their lives. She says, “He’s the best thing that’s happened to us.” Jim’s volunteer duty with Dogs Helping Heroes? “I get to be the one to tell them they got their dog!”
A New Woman
Gloria Gilley entered the military to get away from her violent husband in 1982.
Specialist Gilley had culture shock upon arrival in Iraq. She’d “never seen a camel,” and the U.S. military personnel lived in tents alongside the Iraqis. She was sexually assaulted by a superior officer when they made her move into a men’s tent with only a partition between them.
Gloria is decorated with many ribbons, among which is an impressive Marksman Badge with the Auto Rifle. However, the incredible markswoman became isolated and afraid to face the world at home upon her return 21 years later. It took five years for her to go to the VA, and she had no family support to bring her out of her prison at home. Her emotional diagnoses include persistent depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
Gloria’s beloved Rottweiler, Bear, died of kidney failure last year, and she took “a serious nose dive.” Dogs Helping Heroes stepped in at just the right time last winter with three-year-old Lizzie, a glorious black lab. The dog has liberated Gilley, giving her a chance to explore the world again. She is no longer living in fear behind the locked door of her home, but now ventures out daily with Lizzie and has gradually increased the size and scope of her everyday world.