Instead of medication, a group of wounded veterans have turned to man’s best friend to help them heal. Their wounds might be invisible to you and me, but not to their four-legged partners.
They are participants in the three year old DOG T.A.G.S. program aimed at training dogs to assist, guide and serve combat veterans dealing with the hidden pain of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Volunteer dog trainer Darlene Johnson watches closely how the veterans interact with their dogs as they go through basic commands.
“Get your speed up, guys,” Johnson told a group of six veterans walking their dogs in a circle. “Try to keep your pace steady.”
DOG T.A.G.S. President John Salvadia, a former Air Force and Harrisburg Police dog handler knows what makes a good veteran-dog team.
“The dogs are there to do certain tasks for the veterans, to be their companion and to help them through the many challenges of PTSD,” said Salvadia.
Kate Van Auken is in her fourth month of training with Rey, a discharged decorated combat dog. The retired U.S. Army Lt. Colonel said her buddy makes all the difference in putting nightmares and horrible memories behind her.
“Veterans are used to having someone watch their backs,” said Van Auken. “So, for having someone watch your back, someone you can trust, their is nothing more trustworthy and loyal than a dog.”
Those helped by the DOG T.A.G.S. program often return to the training sessions to help their fellow PTSD veterans.
“I’ve had guys who were virtual shut-ins at home come back to help me run the program,” said Salvadia. “So, this is good for both vets and the dogs.”
U.S. Marine veteran Jason Nauman was part of the Marine division that led the charge into Baghdad and the overthrow of Iraq President Saddam Hussein. And now, since teaming up with his dog, Asia, life is looking better and brighter for the Lancaster County resident.
“I was in some very dark places and ever since I’ve had Asia with me, it’s helped a lot,” said Nauman. “She picks up my moods.”
Iraq combat veteran Brad Schroeder says DOG T.A.G.S. saved two lives when he got teamed up with his dog Cody.
“This program means everything to me,” said Schroeder. “It definitely saved my life and I like to say it saved Cody’s life, too, because he’s a rescue dog.”
Viet Nam veteran Dennis Peters said he dealt with PTSD long before it had a name. Nightmares and sleepless nights were a big part of his life until his rescue mutt Buffy came into his life.
“If I have a problem and can’t sleep, Buffy comes right over to me to be petted,” said Peters. “She knows that calms me down.”
The training sessions are held weekly in the OTCH Dog Training Club in Silver Spring Township. And at every training session, time is set aside for the veterans to just sit, talk and encourage each other. The program is run by volunteer trainers and social workers at no cost to the veteran.
More Info: www.dogtagsprogram.org. 717-810-7532