Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Veteran's Best Friend

Today, millions of people are celebrating and honoring the bravest of our citizens – the men and women that serve in our armed forces. As I began thinking of how I wanted to mark Veteran’s Day, immediately my mind wandered to a story I had heard a few months ago on National Public Radio. It focused on prison inmates, a young veteran, and his dog, Samba.

You see, Paul Bang-Knudsen is one of the 111,000+ veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan that has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While this number seems staggering, keep in mind that these are only the reported cases. Studies estimate that this number is likely closer to 200,000, and growing daily.

PTSD is an extreme anxiety disorder that is usually caused by some traumatic event. This trauma, and the feelings that accompany it, are then relived repeatedly (through dreams, hallucinations, or other events); usually due to some trigger in the person’s surroundings.

These triggers can be small and unexpected. In his interview, Paul Bang-Knudsen stated that simply walking around the corner in a grocery store and coming face to face with another shopper could act as a trigger for him. What are triggers to these veterans are often every day non-events to us. These can be so painful to experience that the affected veterans begin to actively avoid them, in some cases that can mean avoiding the outside world.

This is where Samba comes in. Samba is one of the many service dogs trained to help veterans with PTSD assimilate back into civilian life. These dogs act as barriers to the triggers that would normally set off an attack. Beyond this, the companionship that they offer can be a first step towards this re-acclimation.

Now, how do prison inmates work into this? Samba was a Puppies Behind Bars graduate. This program, and others like it, pairs inmates with future therapy dogs. The inmates take responsibility for their care for the first sixteen months. While certainly there are other programs that do not involve inmates that also provide this service, Puppies Behind Bars is worth special mention because often these dogs provide therapy not only to their owners, but to the inmates with whom they interact as they learn their trade.

Historically, mental illnesses, whether in the military or civilian population, have been under-recognized and under-treated, partly because they can’t be seen with the naked eye like a wound can. However, the newly appointed head of the Department of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, is changing this. He has made PTSD a priority for the VA, initiating programs that both seek out and treat veterans with the disorder.

As more soldiers come home to their families and communities, we hope research into PTSD and dogs like Samba can make the transition easier. On this Veteran’s Day, we want to remember and thank all of our brave soldiers and their families for the sacrifices that they've made for our country. They deserve so much more than just one day.

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