Pooches pulled from the brink of death rescue vets with PTSD
By Sara Cardine 07/19/2012
Linda Brooks knows a good dog when she sees one. There’s something in the eyes, she’ll tell you, an ability to connect with humans that can forecast a lifetime of companionship, mutuality and unconditional love.
“A good dog will automatically look into a human’s face and seem to ask ‘What can I do for you?’ They just have that connection — not every dog has that,” she says.
For years, the Highland Park resident has worked to rescue and find homes for abandoned dogs she learns of through a network of helpers or who are dropped off at the Sun Valley kennel where she volunteers six days a week. Having grown up the victim of emotional and physical abuse, Brooks says she feels a certain kinship with the often neglected and abused wards in her care.
But it wasn’t until last year, when a Staffordshire terrier named Trooper came into Brooks’ life and instinctively helped her recover through an emotionally trying period that she realized the true healing power good dogs possess.
Since then, she’s worked tirelessly to find other dogs with that same quality, so she can get them socialized as companions for recently returned war veterans living with PTSD. It’s her hope that an affectionate pooch could help a vet who might otherwise turn to drinking, drugs or suicide to escape the effects of trauma.
“Everybody is looking for unconditional love but may not know where to find it,” she says.
Brooks is not alone. As nearly one-third of military servicemen and women return from Iraq and Afghanistan with diagnoses of PTSD or traumatic brain injury, veterans groups and agencies nationwide are scrambling to find ways to ease their transition from the battlefield to the home front. Pairing vets with loving pets is beginning to gain steam as a viable, non-medical approach to easing the process.
More than brokering hugs and nuzzles, those who work with companion and service dogs are realizing a deeper dynamic at work — namely that canines who’ve been mistreated and neglected have a special way of interacting with troubled humans.
“Even a junkyard dog wants to be petted,” Brooks reasons. “And broken people want to be accepted, they want to be loved, to find importance and be needed.”
We’re in tune
Living with trauma is something Brooks knows firsthand. A victim of non-military PTSD, the result of sexual abuse, extreme violence and being held at gunpoint, she is acquainted with the more harrowing aspects of living with trauma — the sleeplessness, intense frustration with life’s inevitable snags, a propensity for self-medication and a constant alertness that gives equal weight to threats real and imagined.
Her own experiences bred in her an ability to detect pain and suffering in others, something she’s used as a counselor and a foster parent for emotionally abused and neglected children. She uses that same sensitivity to peer inside the souls of dogs who come to the kennel where she works; she is always looking for dogs that have the gift and in the past year has picked out several potential candidates.
There was Trooper, with whom she bonded instantly. “He looked at me, I smiled and he waggled his tail,” she says, recalling how he walked to where she was seated and laid across her lap to claim his affection. “If you don’t think that can stop depression, I don’t know what can.”
One day, while Brooks was in the throes of a serious migraine, Trooper came to her, bringing his white fur face right up to hers, and puffed two quick breaths in her face. She began to feel better and wondered just what he’d done to nurse her to health.
Five months later, Brooks met Miss Mae, a fawn and white 4-year-old pit mix who’d been kept for years to breed puppies for dog fighting. She’d been repeatedly pinned into a machine that kept her stationary for better mounting, treated brutally and pumped with drugs and hormones to keep her sedate and fertile.
“Her ears were cut off with scissors,” says Brooks. “She’d just lived four and a half years in a living hell.”
Despite the torture she’d endured, Mae still lavished people with affection, earning the nickname “Wigglebutt” and becoming a de facto companion to Brooks.
“Miss Mae is my companion dog. Why? Because she was abused and I was abused. She knows and I know — we’re in tune,” Brooks explains.
One dog, one life
When the war in Afghanistan began 11 years ago, very few programs sought to pair pets with returning veterans. Today, several groups use pet adoption to help servicemen and women by reconnecting them to an unconditional, uncomplicated kind of love.
One of those organizations is 14-DDV (which stands for 14 Dogs, 14 Days, 14 Veterans) a nonprofit begun in Chicago just three months ago by dog trainer Toriano Sanzone and Joe Trainor, Jr., a former special opps Army ranger who served two tours of duty in Iraq.
The pair takes dogs that were scheduled to be euthanized and puts them through an intensive two-week training course to better socialize them. By the time training is over, a group of 14 veterans are waiting with open arms and new homes.
The first graduation ceremony took place in Chicago on Sunday, and 14-DDV has plans to repeat the process in cities throughout the nation. It’s important to get the word out, Trainor says, because veterans tend to suffer psychological ailments in silence.
“When you come back from war, you’re only thinking one thing — how the hell do I get out of the military. You’re not thinking about what programs are out there,” he says.
The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates 18 veterans commit suicide each day. Just three months ago, Trainor himself was a hair’s breadth from becoming part of that statistic. He’d gone through a break-up with a girlfriend, and she’d taken the dog. That’s when he realized it was the dog that had gotten him through the pitfalls of his own undiagnosed PTSD.
On Sunday, Trainor, who had never had a dog of his own, was one of the veterans to receive a companion. There’s a certain charm dogs have on people, he explains, something that could be of special benefit to veterans in need.
“It’s that unconditional love,” Trainor says, “that no matter what I’m going through or whatever PTSD symptoms there may be, to know I’m going to be able to go home and hold my best friend and not have to take a pill or drink a beer, to not be a statistic.”
The organization welcomes inquiries from veterans anywhere in the US through its Web site 14ddv.com.
A calling heard
These days, Brooks is part of the community organization Patriots and Pets; Saving Lives, which aims to match dogs with the vets’ specific needs and then find them local trainers wherever they may live. She is preparing to move to Texas to live near her daughter but is spending every waking minute trying to find trainers and veterans for the companion dogs she’s identified.
Trooper has gone to a retired Army sergeant named David, who used to wake up 14 times a night — now Trooper will stand sentry at the foot of his bed so he can sleep soundly. Meanwhile, a white and brown pit mix named Shug just came into the kennel and is showing promise. In another pen, Baby, a fair-eyed fawn beauty, needs a little bit of training to cure her of her clinginess and save her from death’s door. And a gigantic and muscle-bound black pit named Capone is preparing to journey to Fort Campbell, KY, where a vet eagerly awaits his arrival.
Brooks admits all this matchmaking can be grueling, as it requires a lot of searching, one-on-one attention and hefty expenses for kennel boarding and travel once a destination has been found — but it’s something she has to do.
And it’s all thanks to Trooper, she says.
“I knew I wanted to help people but could never focus on what my calling was. Now I have a passion, and I will never stop. One little Staffordshire bull terrier has changed my life forever, literally forever.
“I tried to find a place for him, but he found a place for me. This is the power of a dog.”
To contact Linda Brooks about companions or to volunteer or make a donation, visit Pets and Patriots; Saving Lives at: facebook.com/pages/Patriots-and-Pets-Saving-Lives/225642130812424.