PTSD "BATTLE BUDDY" INITIATIVE
The fight against PTSD, TBI & other combat issues
In the military, a battle buddy is your battlefield partner with whom you accomplish a common mission. Battle buddies are always ready to assist one another. My battle buddy is Staff Sergeant Randy Dexter. Together, we have a mission to raise awareness, and provide help to those suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Traumatic brain injuries (TBIís) and other combat issues.
I first met Randy through the goal directed therapy work I do with Paws'itive Team's Canine Inspired Community Re-integration (CICR) program. The program helps active duty military with PTSD make the transition back into the civilian world through canine therapy. The dogs are handled by the service members for two hours at a time over a six week period. The goal of the program is for service members to experience a reduction in their anxiety and other PTSD symptoms by having a dog accompany them. Although we're working as highly trained, certified goal directed therapy dogs, this program gives them insight into what it would be like to have a service dog. We are given special permission to accompany the service member in places that evoke anxiety such as Walmart, Home Depot, Restaurants, stores and a number of other places.
I'm honored to introduce you to my good FURiend & battle buddy, Randy...
My name is Randall Dexter, and I am a Staff Sergeant in the U.S. Army. I have been a combat medic for the last ten years, and have spent twenty-seven months fighting in Operation Iraqi Freedom. On April 5, 2005, my life changed forever.
My squad and I were hit with a very large improvised explosive device (IED). I hit my head on the metal panel behind me in the HMVEE and suffered a concussion. Three Iraqis were severely injured in the blast, one gravely with an open head wound. Being the only medic on site, I began treatment when the site was secured. The injuries that I treated were the first major injuries I had ever treated as a medic. Two of the men survived, but the man with the open head wound unfortunately did not. That was the beginning of what was to come of my twenty-seven months. That night, now that I look back on it, my whole outlook on life began to change.
For four years since that fateful day, my life symptomatically seemed to be falling apart. Every time I fell asleep I was having horrific nightmares, which made me scared to sleep. So I wouldnít sleep, or would have to get drunk enough to pass out. I couldnít go out in public places because crowds and meeting people I didnít know caused agonizing panic attacks. I would snap into a rageful monster at the drop of a dime. I couldnít concentrate on anything longer than thirty-seconds because my mind would always be back in Iraq or full of anxiety. I would avoid anything or anyone that might remind me of Iraq or trigger the anxiety that was caused, and if I couldnít I would have to be heavily intoxicated to function.
In April of 2009, I was diagnosed with PTSD, and the demons I had hidden for so long were out of the box. I began my long journey into treatment, and let me say that this has been harder than actual combat itself. I have been active in AA, individual counseling, physical activities and somehow I just couldn't find whatever it was that I needed to stop the suicidal thoughts, substance abuse, rage outbursts, nightmares, panic attacks, and all around feeling that I had no hope to a better future.
When I first met Ricochet I was lost, broken, and looking for some strength so that I could have some hope to be the man, father, and husband I know I was capable of being. Instantly Ricochet gave me what I was looking for, and I felt fully alive for the first time in years for those 90 minutes. After the 6 weeks were over she knew exactly when I was too anxious, or if I would be better off not going down a certain aisle in Walmart because it would be stressful for me. We were truly in sync. I had the strength I was lacking for so long and I didnít need any medication or drugs or alcohol in order to find it. And from then on, I pushed myself to keep doing everything I could. I will continue to kick this PTSD in the ass like I was trained to fight in war. Thatís the soldier in me. And, the medic in me wants to help as many like me as I can. Iím on a mission.
I'm on a mission too! Randy and I have teamed up and created a partnership! Even though his 6 weeks in the Paws'itive Teams program has come to an end, I'll be continuing my work with him until he gets his own service dog. We're both committed to helping others while we're at it too! Our goal is to raise awareness of PTSD, remove the stigma associated with it, educate the public and showcase the therapeutic partnerships between dogs and those with PTSD. We'll also be sharing helpful tips on what one should look for when considering a service dog, recovery resources and much more.
Here's how Randy's wife, Rebecca describes his ongoing partnership with me... "I see such a change in Randy when he's with Ricochet. I know Ricochet can get him out of that downward, fast, scary slope into PTSD hell. Once that devil grabs a hold of him, it takes days if not weeks to have a husband who will talk with more than one word, or a nod of his head. The non existing husband people think doesn't live here as he is sleeping all the time in a dark room only to wake once maybe to eat. Ricochet is the ONLY person (she's more than a dog) that has EVER snapped randy out of being taken a hold of by the PTSD devil. I've never seen him switch so fast. It's like she knows where his switch is and no one else does."
I've been working with Paws'itive Teams CICR program for almost two years. During that time, I've displayed extra-ordinary intuition and a natural propensity to assist service members in ways a service dog would. On many occasions I was able to sense subtle changes in their body when they were beginning to have a panic attack, anxiety attack, increased pain or other compromising behavior. I instinctively alerted them, which interrupted an oncoming debilitating or destructive behavior, and helped them to refocus on me and work through the problem.
One time we were doing agility. My marine had a lot of pain in her neck and head from an auto accident earlier that week, so I kept stopping in my tracks. Mom thought I was alerting to her pain, so she gave the marine ideas on how to turn my alerts into a trained task. A few days later, mom got an email saying she actually had a fractured spine. I knew she shouldn't have been partaking in those physical activities!
Another time, I was in WalMart with Randy. He was extremely stressed to be in a large store with so many people and perceived threats. At one point, he started to walk down an aisle, but again I stopped and wouldn't move. Mom looked down the aisle and saw it was full of people. I was alerting that he shouldn't go down the aisle due to his stress level. So, again mom worked with him to put my behavior on cue so he could be re-directed and go down a different, less crowded aisle.
Although I wasn't able to be a service dog for a person with a physical disability due to my interest in birds, I don't pose a risk to an able bodied person like Randy. Rather, I'm able to instantly bond with anyone who interacts with me because I have such an intuitive spirit. I'm also perceptive, so I can independently detect and alert service members to their physiological, emotional and psychological changes, even if they don't know they're happening. I'm able to recognize, interrupt, engage and redirect them from anxiety, panic attacks, and increases in pain levels. I can recognize negative thoughts and pain, and then intervene to help them cope.
Since I've already been trained as a service dog, and mom has a degree in service dog training, we will use our background, knowledge and skills to help Randy (and some other service members) on a short term, intermittent basis as he continues his recovery, rehabilitation and re-integrates back into the civilian world.
Our goal is for him to feel comfortable in public, regain his independence and accomplish his personal aspirations while learning more about service dog training.
We'll teach him additional tasks that service dogs perform to mitigate a PTSD disability which include alerting him to an early onset of a panic attack so heís not caught off guard & can take appropriate action. How to position me in front of, or behind him on his verbal cue to create a barrier between him and a perceived threat. To cue me to stand in heel position, but facing backwards so I can alert to anything that is happening behind him. Utilize me to provide stimulation to distract him from emotional overload by responding to a cue to lick his face. If Randy isnít sure if his response to certain situations is appropriate, he can look to me for confirmation. If Iím calm, and not responding to whatever he hears or sees, he knows everything is ok.
We'll also teach Randy the importance of a service dog's temperament which includes being laid back, amiable and well socialized so they can handle the challenges of public access work in a calm manner. I'll show him how I can remain obedient and unobtrusive even if he reacts with extreme anxiety to various stimuli. By remaining calm in such situations, my relaxed demeanor will serve as a reality check for Randy and enable him to more accurately assess the situation and make reality informed decisions about what to do.
In addition, we'll highlight how important it is to determine if a dog, whether bred or rescued is appropriate for the 24/7, high anxiety PTSD work. The dog's wellbeing is of utmost importance, as not every dog can handle such stressful work. No matter if a dog is self trained or program trained there should always be a support system in place.
This Battle Buddy partnership with Randy will give him the unique opportunity to identify what he needs in a service dog, learn dog handling skills, and experience the healing power of a dog without rushing into a decision. There are many factors involved in PTSD, service dogs, therapy dogs and the day to day process, and we plan to share whatever we learn with anyone else who has PTSD, or loves someone who does.
I know I have a special gift that I can't keep to myself. A gift that is meant to be shared with Randy and others who fought for our country. They are home now, but still at war with invisible demons that are disabling to their psychological and emotional well being. I might not be a service dog in the traditional sense, but I can sure help Randy and others learn lots of things that will help in their decision making about a potential service dog.
I hope to be a catalyst that helps to enable and empower Randy to break this cycle and gain back his independence. To become stronger, gain confidence, partake in normal activities of daily living, develop coping strategies, build trust and function outside his home. It's this momentum that will help him move forward, re-integrate into society and face challenges he's been avoiding. My wish for him is that he can lead a normal life again. Not only for himself, but for his wife and three children.
I know our paths have crossed for a reason. And, although I don't know exactly what we'll discover, I'm confident that together we will accomplish something bigger than just ourselves. Although sharing his hardships for the whole world to see will be difficult for Randy, he is committed to making a difference. There is no doubt in my mind that he will find his life purpose while helping many others on their journey to recovery.
Thank you for supporting me and Randy on our PTSD Battle Buddy Initiative!
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), a service dog must be individually trained to do work or perform tasks of benefit to a disabled individual, such as alerting a person with PTSD during an anxiety attack. Dogs whose sole function is to provide comfort or emotional support do not qualify as a service animal under the ADA. It is the specially trained tasks or work performed on command or cue that legally exempts a service dog and his disabled handler from the ďNo Pets AllowedĒ policies of stores, restaurants and other places of public accommodation under the ADA.
PTSD is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event that results in psychological trauma. It is considered an invisible disability. PTSD service dogs can help reduce anxiety and re-establish a sense of security. Very often the dog provides enough help that the person can reduce the amount of medications they take.
Roughly 20% of the nearly 2 million soldiers who have served in Iraq & Afghanistan are struggling with PTSD and TBI. Their families are struggling right along with them. When they return from war, they come back a different person, and are forever changed. Their soul is shattered. They are broken.
Post-deployment suicides cause more deaths than combat! Studies show that 1 in 5 veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD. Twenty-two veterans take their lives every day with over 600,000 living with psychological trauma from the war.
Some veterans can make a relatively easy transition to civilian life. But many find it much more challenging and overwhelming. The world they knew prior to deployment no longer exists for them. They now have a hard time functioning in day-to-day activities, and find themselves looking at most things as potential threats. They can be easily startled, triggered by sights, sounds and smells that remind them of war. They often succumb to homelessness, crime, drugs and alcohol. The hyper-vigilance and hyper-reactivity they needed to survive at war, is no longer appropriate in our society, but they often respond with a fight or flight reaction.
They experience depression, memory loss, rage, severe anxiety, impatience, numbing, avoidance, uncontrollable thoughts, fear of public places and panic attacks. They often end up living very secluded lives. Relationships with their spouse, family and friends can break down. They suffer from hallucinations, flashbacks, nightmares, night terrors, lack of sleep, insomnia, isolation, lack of confidence, self destruction, suicidal thoughts and depression. They have a distorted sense of reality and often find themselves in a self destructive downward spiral of inappropriate emotional responses to everyday situations. Veterans who have service dogs say their symptoms are greatly reduced and their lives have been transformed.
Here are some additional links to learn more about PTSD and service dogs...
An article that gives you a glimpse into one man's battle with PTSD http://www.viewzone.com/ptsd.html
A video that is a good representation of how a veteran with PTSD sees the world (warning: there are some graphic images) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NkWwZ9ZtPEI
Additional PTSD service dogs tasks can be found at http://www.iaadp.org/psd_tasks.html
For a list of accredited service dog programs that place dogs for PTSD, go to http://www.assistancedogsinternational.org
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