Article by Author and Public Speaker James A. Kuiken
I’ve known I’ve had Post Traumatic Stress (some call it a “disorder”…but not me), and Traumatic Brain Injury (from blast / concussion injuries) for decades – but I was strong enough to manage it on my own – didn’t need any coddling or help from anyone else. I wasn’t one of those weak, attention seeking veterans whining about how tough they had it in “the war”, and how rough it was back here at home trying to “adjust”.
After all, I had been the Sergeant Major of Marine Forces Pacific, the highest Combatant Command in the Marines (overseeing 2/3 of the combat capabilities of the Marine Corps) – and was a highly decorated, combat wounded veteran of 30 years’ service in multiple wars / conflicts (both active and reserve).
I had also been a member of the federal Senior Executive Service, and a Director in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security; a former Vice President and President/CEO in the corporate world; and a former candidate for United States Congress (TX-15).
Obviously, I didn’t have any problems…
Not that I was unsympathetic. With 22 Veterans / servicemembers a day committing suicide (that figures out to one killing themselves every 65 minutes), the toll is intolerable. Can you imagine if that many were dying in combat during the wars – the media and the public would go ballistic! But since its suicide, the numbers are shamefully underreported by media, and unrecognized by most of the public.
I became involved in trying to slow those numbers down, save lives, and reduce the unprecedented numbers of homeless veterans as the Vice-Chairman of the Board for Veterans 360 (www.vets360.org), an organization focused on saving lives by helping post-911 service members and Veterans with PTS and TBI issues. It wasn’t until Vets360 put out a survey to try and identify those with PTS, and I took it just for the heck of it, that I realized just how affected I was. When my survey came back, the Executive Director called me to ask if I was seeing anyone, concerned that I might be suicidal – because I “redlined” the survey (maxed out the results for PTS). I’ve never been suicidal, but that got me thinking.
I realized that once I had retired, I had begun spending more and more time in my chair, sometimes days at a time, and only getting up once or twice a day for food when I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I also realized that starting with my return from the Gulf War (1991) I had been increasingly isolating myself from family and friends, and that had only gotten worse with my trips to Bosnia, Kosovo, my activation for Op Enduring Freedom in 2002, and my time in Iraq in 2005-2006. In retrospect…I realized I had actually been having significant problems since my return to the U.S. in the mid 70’s after my first deployment… I was in serious trouble, and needed help.
I had applied to the VA for benefits / treatment in 1977, 1986, 1991, 2001, 2011, and 2013…and to date, have never received any benefits or treatment from them. Even with my Purple Heart paperwork and combat related medical records, they classified my injuries as “not service connected”… It was up to me to find my own help.
Someone recommended a service dog, so I researched it online, looking for dogs specific to PTS and TBI, and that is how I found K9s For Warriors(www.k9sforwarriors.org), a fantastic organization who pairs rescue dogs with post-911 Warriors. I contacted them, and went through a very detailed application and vetting process, and was accepted into the January 2015 class. I had no idea what I had let myself in for.
As K9s says, “We rescue the dogs, they rescue their warriors.” They use mostly rescue dogs (mine came from a high-kill shelter in Kentucky), train them for several months, and then give them additional training to help with the specific issues that their future Warrior partner has listed on their application. Once the Warrior (K9s’ terminology for the human half of the K9 team) arrives, s/he begins the three week intensive, live-in, total immersion training, where the teams bond, are trained to work with each other, the human partner is trained to continue the K9 partner’s training and certification…and the magic happens.
I remember the moment I first met Freedom…my K9 partner. I can’t describe the overwhelming joy I felt when he came directly to me, licked my hand, and sat by my side. We quickly became inseparable, and a completely bonded team.
Many of these Warriors are early in their recovery, and have significant issues with crowds, noises, ambient movement, etc…and as happens in each class, most of them (myself included) have episodes or even melt-downs during the training evolution. K9s is well equipped to recognize the signs, pull the team aside and mitigate the issue, and then put them right back up in the saddle to continue to gain exposure and training. The biggest factor is the dog – your partner. Often they recognize the signs before you do yourself, and take action to get you focused, on track, and feeling safe and not isolated.
This does not come cheap. K9s, like all non-profit organizations, works at finding funding every single day to save these rescue dogs lives, and provide the training and service that can help save Veteran’s / servicemember’s lives. To put a single K9 Service Team through costs thousands of dollars. Luckily…my Team was sponsored by Petsmart (www.petsmart.com), one of the corporate sponsors that have stepped forward. Petsmart not only sponsored my Team, but continues to work with and help fund the K9s for Warriors program.
Since returning home, Freedom and I have continued to bond (I didn’t think it could get any deeper, but it does) and work, play, and go everywhere together. I’ve begun to re-establish the connections with family and friends that I had withdrawn from, and recapture the life I had let slip away. I now see with clear eyes just how far I had let it go – and how much trouble I was actually in. When he came into my life, I gained Freedom from a hard downhill slide, and now look forward to helping to “de-stigmatize” PTS and TBI, which as I mentioned in my earlier post (Lets Get Real about PTS and TBI), is “a normal reaction to an abnormal situation”.
Forward March Inc. is very proud to repost this article with permission from Mr. Kuiken. You can, and should, read more of Author and Speaker James Kuiken’s posts here