'Dog tags' takes on new meaning in program for soldiers with PTSD
Published Friday, November 16, 2012 5:00PM EST
Last Updated Saturday, November 17, 2012 11:06PM EST
The first thing you notice about Geoff Logue is his wariness -- the way he looks around, taking in the scene, noting details. He’s a corporal in the Canadian Army who served in the Provincial Reconstruction Team in Afghanistan and came home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Everyday routines, like going to the mall, have become an ordeal. The noise, the crowds, being exposed in the open with nowhere to hide, all trigger the responses he learned as a soldier.
“I was outside the wire almost every day on missions,” he said. “And you have to watch your surroundings. You have to look for cues, anything that's suspicious.”
Trained to be suspicious, always watching his back, Geoff hasn’t been able to turn that switch off. But now he has an ally in his battle with PTSD. She is a two-year-old German Shepherd-Lab called Luna.
“She provides that extra security and the comfort level,” he said. “She really helps calm me down.”
Luna is much more than a pet. She’s one of 37 psychiatric service dogs in a remarkable program developed in Manitoba by George Leonard, a certified dog trainer who is part of an aboriginal group that has trained more than 350 service dogs of all kinds.
The American and British military have used dogs to treat PTSD for years. But this program is a first for Canada.
It’s not just the dogs being trained. The soldiers are learning too. And that’s a form of therapy.
“It’s 24-hour therapy,” said Leonard. “And the great thing about a military guy, and this is all 37 guys I work with, is you tell them A-B-C, you’re going to get A-B-C. They are actively involved in the training, so they’re training the dog with you.”
Before he got Luna, Geoff Logue’s PTSD threatened to destroy his marriage. He was depressed, on prescription drugs and drinking too much. It got so bad his daughter, Abigail, just a toddler at the time, would try to stop him.
“She would see me with a beer,” he said. “And she would come up and tell me, ‘Daddy only one more.’ And it was really hard for me.”
It was rough going for a while, but when Luna became part of the family, the bond between her and Geoff made life easier.
“They’re inseparable,” said Geoff’s wife, Crystal. “I’ve never seen anybody with a relationship like them. They’re amazing.”
Having a service dog helped another veteran of Afghanistan, Jesse Veltri, dampen the demons of PTSD.
“It’s been really relaxing having her with me,” he said. “I’ve lots to pay attention to. She’s my attention and I don’t have to concentrate on everybody else. My head’s not spinning around in circles like it usually does.”
Before he got Farrah, Jesse rarely left his house.
“I didn't want to be around anybody,” he said. “I was so depressed and so out of it that I just I didn't care about my life anymore.”
Drinking and taking heavy medication, Veltri’s spiral towards self-destruction seemed unstoppable.
The aggression he needed to survive as a soldier in Afghanistan just wouldn’t switch off as a civilian at home in Brandon, Manitoba.
And when he did leave his house, he would go looking for a fight
“I was actually going out to bars and finding individuals to fight,” he said. “It seemed like the necessary thing to be doing because your adrenaline is pumping so much.
Then he got Farrah, a Shepherd-Collie mix, and another soldier suggested he should contact George Leonard to have her trained as a service dog.
Having a trained dog helped him channel his aggression in a new way and now Jesse is a rising star in Mixed Martial Arts tournaments.
“This dog has made me the calmest person in the world,” he said. “Win or lose. It doesn’t really matter. Because when I go home at the end of the day, she’ll be there waiting for me and she’ll want the same thing, which is, go take me for a walk, give me some food and give me some water and show me some love.”
It’s such a simple formula. Food, water and love. But the psychiatric service dog program doesn’t come for free.
Right now, George Leonard and his trainers volunteer their time.
The Canadian Legion and other donors help pay the $1,200 for the custom-made vests that identify a service dog. But the soldiers themselves are on the hook for veterinary care and food. That’s a lot for a veteran on a disability pension
The Departments of National Defence and VAC, Veterans Affairs Canada, both endorse the program, but so far, they’re not willing to pay for it.
“We’re not asking for a whole lot,” said Geoff Logue. “But we have our dogs for a reason because of our disability, serving for our country.”
George Leonard points out that the soldiers don’t need so much medication when they have a service dog, so why not use the money saved to help them with the cost of training and looking after the dogs
“We have 37 people that are all still alive, that are all significantly better than when they started,” said George Leonard. “Can a pharmaceutical company do that? Hell, no. And we don’t have walking zombies. We have people that are interacting, that are engaging.”
Take Master Corporal Bill Nachuk. A veteran of the conflicts in Bosnia and Afghanistan, his PTSD was so bad, he attempted suicide four times. Now, he has Gambler, an Australian Cattle Dog, who has become his constant companion. He was the first service dog ever to be allowed on a Canadian Forces base with an active soldier.
With Gambler, Nachuk is off medication and can continue his military career and is on his way to a promotion to sergeant, but the dog is always ready if Bill’s PTSD symptoms appear.
“If I get very emotional for an extended period of time, he’ll actually sit up or he’ll whine,” said Bill. “He’ll put his head on my lap. He’ll do something to break me out of that moment and bring me back to now.”
Bill Nachuk, Jesse Veltri and Geoff Logue: three soldiers, three lives almost destroyed by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But thanks to a bond that reaches back through time -- a dog and a human being -- their lives and the lives of their loved ones are being restored.