Toronto EMS, Fire and Police on the scene!
SAN DIEGO — The hovering aircraft was just a plain-vanilla traffic chopper, a benignly common species to Southern California skies. But its mere presence overhead was enough to make Tori Stitt stiffen.
More than a year ago, Ms. Stitt, a former Navy officer who did a tour in northern Iraq, might have made a beeline for her car, ducked under a table or broken down in panic merely from the chopping of rotors — a sound she still associates with combat casualties. But this time, she remained outwardly calm, breathing deep, while silently and strenuously massaging the ears of the service dog at her feet.
The moment was one more small victory in Ms. Stitt’s road back from war. Medications and therapy have helped her cope with, though not overcome, the depression,sleeplessness sleeplessness and anxiety caused by post traumatic stress disorder. But nothing has been more important to her recovery, she says, than Devon, the amiable golden retriever that has become her constant companion.
“It doesn’t matter what bad things are going on, I can pet Devon, give him a hug, and they turn around 180 degrees,” Ms. Stitt said.
Ms. Stitt is among the many thousands of veterans from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan whose P.T.S.D. cases are considered chronic: so severe that treating the disorder into remission through standard practices — usually prescription medications and cognitive or exposure therapy — is expected to take many years.
It is not surprising, then, that many of those veterans are turning to alternative treatments like yoga, acupuncture, herbal remedies and massage therapy to relieve symptoms enough so that they can return to work, maintain relationships or simply function day to day. None have proved more popular than service dogs.
Organizations have sprouted up in many military towns to provide dogs at little or no cost to veterans with P.T.S.D. or traumatic brain injury. Businesses and nonprofit groups created to train dogs for the blind or autistic have shifted into veterans services.
And Congress has ordered the Department of Veterans Affairs to study the effectiveness of service dogs as P.T.S.D. therapy, with some lawmakers looking to require the government to help finance training, which can cost more than $15,000 a dog.
“America wants to take care of its veterans,” said Lu Picard, founder of east coast assistance dogs, which trains service dogs. “So it can be easier to raise money for a veteran than for a man who has a spinal injury spinal injury from a car accident.”
There is little scientific data showing that dogs relieve the symptoms of P.T.S.D., though several research projects are under way. And skeptics say that dogs cannot possibly treat the underlying disorder, where memories of traumatic events trigger potentially debilitating symptoms. But many P.T.S.D. experts say that there is much anecdotal evidence that dogs make veterans feel better — and that may be enough.
“If the point is to treat a person into remission, we have no evidence that service dogs can do that,” said Alan L. Peterson, a professor of psychistry at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio and director of Strong Star, a research consortium on P.T.S.D. “But in terms of just coping, they might help.”
Ms. Stitt, 31, grew up in Florida, attended Norwich University in Vermont on an R.O.T.C. scholarship and was commissioned as a Navy officer in 2002.
While working on a guided-missile destroyer, she was recruited to join an Army engineering battalion in Iraq because she was familiar with sophisticated electronic equipment. Her job would be to oversee the operation and maintenance of devices used to detect or jam remotely detonated roadside bombs.
She was excited by the prospect of joining a unit that would bring her as close to combat as a woman could get. But her very first mission outside the wire, in 2006, proved disastrous.
Her unit was returning from a patrol when a bomb exploded beneath a vehicle, injuring several soldiers. A firefight broke out, and within minutes helicopters swarmed overhead. Confused and terrified, Lieutenant Stitt froze, unable to react to orders or even get out of her vehicle when the fighting was over.
“The Navy did not prepare me to see that,” she said. “I was completely ineffective in that mission. I couldn’t do anything. I was powerless.”
She asked to be sent home, but her commanders said no. So for the next several months, she went on bomb-searching patrols almost daily. By the end of her tour, she felt toughened. But she had also seen more casualties. And she was racked by guilt and shame for having failed to prevent bombs from exploding and for breaking down emotionally in combat.
“I blamed myself a lot in theater for things that happened,” she said. “Even if I had no control over it.”
Barbara Van Dahlen, a clinical psychologist who works with veterans, said that while many troops feel guilt or shame about events in war, women have the added burden of overcoming doubts about their mettle.
“All soldiers fear that they will freeze up,” Dr. Van Dahlen said. “But women come into the military having to prove that they are as good as a man. There already is an assumption that she is not mentally as tough or physically fit.”
Ms. Stitt started having nightmares and sleeping problems while in Iraq. A year later, she deployed to Bahrain. Feeling alienated from other sailors and increasingly nervous around Arabs, she became a loner, drinking herself to sleep.
When the deployment ended, she stole a piece of furniture from the apartment where she stayed, an infraction that almost got her kicked out of the Navy. Back in San Diego, she drank more heavily than ever, and one night in 2008, she resolved to swallow a bottle of pills with her booze. “I felt so alone,” she said. “I was better off just dead.”
That night, she fed her cats, tidied up her apartment and called friends. One of them became so alarmed that she got her husband to talk to Ms. Stitt until she fell asleep. The next day she checked into the psychiatric ward at Balboa Naval Medical Center.
Alcohol treatment got her back on her feet, and she went through several months of P.T.S.D. treatment. But nothing quite clicked. “I was still dealing with nightmares, flashbacks, sleeping issues,” she said. “And I was still isolating. I needed another avenue to help me get out.”
Desperate for an answer, it dawned on her: “What about a dog?”
She applied to a local organization that charged her $3,000. On one of her first visits, she met Devon, a finicky retriever who had not bonded with other prospective masters. But he trotted right up to Ms. Stitt and responded to her initial commands. Devon, Ms. Stitt says, chose her.
Like other service dogs that work with veterans, Devon was trained to turn on lights, check rooms for unexpected visitors, guide Ms. Stitt through crowds or “block” people who come uncomfortably close. His most important task, though, is to give her emotional sustenance.
She says he can sense when she is nervous and responds by standing close or putting a paw on her lap. If she thrashes in her sleep, he licks her face to wake her. And by the mere fact of needing walks, he forces her to leave her apartment and, along the way, interact with people.
In 2010, she received an honorable discharge and six months later used her bachelor’s degree in psychology to get a job with a nonprofit organization, Interfaith Community Services, as a case manager working with veterans recovering from alcohol or drug addiction.
At work, she can sound like the Navy officer she once was, gently but firmly counseling clients, all of them men, to stick with their medications, attend therapy, stay focused on finding work or complete their studies.
Inside, she counsels herself as well. She sometimes forgets her medications and has been slow to resume therapy, complaining about the waiting list for individualized counseling at the San Diego Veterans Affairs health center. She has made friends, but is still something of a loner. Devon remains her touchstone.
“I would like to spend a little bit less time with him, be less dependent,” she said. “But it’s going to take some therapy to make that happen.”
Still, she is getting through most of her days. At a meeting of homeless men at an Interfaith housing complex, she patiently chided the veterans, many of them from the Vietnam era, to stop bickering, and she then had them clean their rooms in preparation for a weekend inspection.
It was at times tense, and during the session, Devon remained seated nearby, watching his master intently. When she finished and headed outside, he dashed across the grass and painted her hands with his tongue. Had she been nervous? A little, she said. But at this moment, she was laughing, and it was difficult to know as she stroked his mane whether she was the comforted or the comforter.
(dear readers, I have presented this article by James Dao, of the NY Times verbatim so that our soldiers as well as those in our emergency services will not feel so alone after dealing with the unthinkable! There are those around you who care! I am reminded of General Douglas MacArthur at the climax of WW2 as he presided over the Japanese unconditional surrender when he said, "No man hates war, as much as the soldier". I have dealt with many in emergency services and my most memorable comment came from a Toronto Police officer who told me that he "needed his friends outside the force more than his friends needed him." Regardless if it's a dog or a friend outside the force, it is important to reach out. God Bless!)