Hope has four legs: Service dogs comfort combat veterans

LORI KERSEY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
John and Liz Flanagan with MAGNOLIA.
LORI KERSEY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
John Flanagan holds a dog and waits to find out which pup he’s been matched with.
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An inmate works with the dog she has been assigned to teach basic commands to.
Photo courtesy of CAROL MITCHELL
Military veteran Jeff Mitchell and TAZIE, a feral rescue dog from Afghanistan who has been trained as a psychiatric service dog for Mitchell.
Photo courtesy of CAROL MITCHELL
Jeff Mitchell during deployment to Iraq with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment out of Fort Carson, Colo. He did his first tour in 2003 and his second in 2005.
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An inmate named Jessica, serving time for a DUI leading to death, holds COAL, the golden Lab she is training to work as a service dog.
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Sabrina Rigney pets NOEL, the psychiatric service dog she’s been matched with. Rigney hopes NOEL will be able to detect and interrupt the debilitating nightmares she has suffered since her final tour of combat.
Photo courtesy of ROBBIE COMBS
Veteran Robbie Combs and AVERY, the psychological service dog he was matched with through the paws4prisons program.
Photo courtesy of ROBBIE COMBS
Robbie Combs, of St. Albans, is pictured in 1981, shortly after the fiery jet crash that haunts him today.
Photo courtesy of ROBBIE COMBS
Robbie and Sherry Combs with AVERY.
LORI KERSEY | Sunday Gazette-Mail
A 25-year-old inmate named Jessica kisses HARPER, a service dog she trained who now aids a critically ill 14-year-old girl.
Photo courtesy of CAROL MITCHELL
Military veteran Jeff Mitchell and TAZIE, a feral rescue dog from Afghanistan who has been trained as a psychiatric service dog for Jeff.
Photo courtesy of SABRINA RIGNEY
Air Force service member Sabrina Rigney during one of her deployments.
Photo courtesy of CECE MILLER
Retired Army 1st Sgt. John R. Champion Jr. committed suicide July 6, 2009. His sister, Cece Miller, now runs the paws4prisons program in an effort to combat veteran suicides.

By Maria Young

Staff writer

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Military war veterans have a way of shrugging off pain like they can’t feel a thing.

“It happened about a month before we were pulled out of Iraq, so I was one of the last who was combat wounded,” said Nick Harrelson, an ex-infantryman who suffered a traumatic brain injury when his vehicle was hit by a roadside bomb in 2011.

“Just my luck,” he added with a grin at a recent gathering that organizers hope will help Harrelson and other veterans in the room work through the pain rather than allowing it to fester.

“In 191 days on the ground, we saw 260 mortar rounds, so needless to say I’m not too keen on fireworks,” joked 31-year-old Sabrina Rigney, a former Air Force medic whose final deployment was to Balad, Iraq, a place she and her fellow soldiers dubbed “Mortaritaville.”

“I saw some guys I was pretty attached to get pretty messed up, but it comes with the territory,” she said, adding, “No big deal.”

Combating PTSD

But it is a big deal, or these veterans wouldn’t be here, at the Lakin Correctional Center in West Columbia, near the Ohio border, to be matched with the prisoner-trained service dogs who might just allow them to live more normally — and in some cases, could save their lives.

“I don’t know if you all know it or not, but 22 veterans in the United States commit suicide every day,” Rigney told the crowd of inmates, officials, veterans and their families.

“I came really close to being one of those three times,” she added.

The last time, she said, was a month ago.

Rigney is one of a handful of military veterans who’ve applied and have been selected for the paws4vets program. They gathered at the Lakin facility a few days ago to be matched with a psychiatric service dog through a process organizers call a “bump.”

“I can’t go to the zoo with my little boy. I don’t do well around crowds. And Walmart on a Saturday? It ain’t happening,” said John Flanagan, who had four deployments to Iraq.

The last time he came home, he said, he was so different, so troubled, that his wife finally threatened to shoot him herself unless he got help.

“And she’s a pretty good shot,” he said.

Some of the veterans have flashbacks. Others have nightmares. Others are unable to handle crowds, loud noises, the sounds of sirens or people crying, or any number of other triggers that keep them from living their lives as they once did.

Some break down in tears, or have panic attacks that leave them cowering in fear of an unseen enemy. Others have turned to alcohol, drugs or have found other dysfunctional ways of coping.

Through this program, many of them say, hope walks in the door on four legs, with silky blond hair and big brown eyes.

“It’s like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” said Robbie Combs, a veteran from St. Albans who was on board the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz as it headed toward Norfolk, Va., on May 25, 1981, when a jet crashed on the deck, killing 14 servicemen and injuring 48 others.

It’s been more than three decades, and that night still haunts him so much that he has a hard time talking about it — but he’s found that writing can be therapeutic, and he can write about it with eloquence:

“It’s ironic that one night over 30 years ago can still take control of you and shake you to your core. ... This inner war that I fight on a daily basis is hard, it’s a real-life battle that can surface at any time or any place. You can just be sitting and hear a noise or smell something, then it hits you like a flash flood of terror. It begins with tremors and shaking hands, racing thoughts that run through you mind faster than you can process them. It gets hard to fight this crazy battle day after day.”

Rigorous training

The dogs, mostly golden Labradors, are paired as puppies with prison inmates who’ve completed extensive K-9 training.

Behind the barbed-wire fences and metal gates, the puppies get training and care round-the-clock and emerge with the skills to help critically ill children, disabled adults and military veterans suffering — in come cases, struggling to function — because of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The inmates get training and certification that often leads to jobs on the outside once they have been released. But warden Lori Nohe, who runs the Lakin Correctional Center, estimates roughly 30 percent of the women housed at the facility also suffer from PTSD as a result of traumatic childhoods, violence and abuse — so the trainers, too, benefit from the care and comfort the dogs have to offer.

“Everybody has to have a purpose, and this brings that back for these inmates,” she said.

“They work extra hard to train these puppies. It’s a 24/7 job, and success is for them to get to see the recipients, to see how their hard work is going to help someone who really, really needs it.”

It all started when paws4people was founded in 1999 as a social therapy program that evolved into a prison training program, paws4prisons, to allow more dogs to be trained. Organizers use lower-case letters for their programs and put the names of all of their dogs in capital letters, as a way of emphasizing who they say the “stars” are.

Cece Miller was an inmate at the Hazelton Correctional Center in Bruceton Mills, serving time for a white-collar conviction and working with paws4prisons when her brother, a military veteran, committed suicide.

“He was 21 years in the military, 82nd Airborne, Bronze Star recipient. It was pretty tough to take. And I knew we had to do something to stop this from happening. I don’t want another sister to have to go through this,” she said.

Paws4veterans started at Hazelton in 2007, then spread to other West Virginia prisons — Alderson, Lakin, Pruntytown and St. Marys, with plans for a program to start at the facility in Mount Olive next.

Miller was released in 2010 and is now the statewide director of paws4prisons.

“We’ve gone from starting the program with four dogs and eight inmates to now 150 inmates training dogs, and we’ve placed over 250 dogs with clients, and we have about 300 volunteers,” she said.

The program is academically rigorous. Inmates learn everything from basic and advanced obedience training to veterinary care, behavioral therapy, medical terminology, and even immunology, things that help them better understand the clients who will be ultimately matched with their dogs.

Inmates who’ve committed crimes against children, elderly people or animals are not eligible for the program, and neither are sex offenders.

Paying it forward

“You can be the best dog trainer in the world, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to be the best person in the world,” Miller said, “and we’re looking to pay it forward.”

Part of “paying it forward,” for both inmates and veterans, means telling their story in public. Both groups have seen their share of violence, whether from crime or combat. And yet, speaking about it publicly is frightening.

“I hadn’t told anybody about my story since I got locked up” more than 15 years ago, said Trish, an inmate who told of beatings and sexual abuse at the hands of a relative, and watching her father kill the man in front of her.

She still has flashbacks, she said, but the dog she’s trained “has helped me through the hard times,” and represents something that is hard to find behind bars.

“This is the only way I can give back,” she said.

“To me, the neat thing is, the inmates get to hear the clients’ stories, so it starts becoming meaningful to them, they can see the fruits of their labor,” said Commissioner Jim Rubenstein, head of the West Virginia Department of Corrections, who said he fully supports the program and expects it to expand to other DOC facilities in the state.

“For some of them, with their addictions and criminal histories, taking care of a living creature, it has an impact on them. You know, ‘It’s more than just about me and my selfish desires,’ and some of those messages start running deep,” he added.

Love and laughter

“How do you thank someone for saving your life? For saving your family?” asked Carol Mitchell, who told the crowd that after her son, Jeff, came back from Iraq, he was on the brink of suicide. In fact, she said, he was hospitalized and recovering from an overdose when she heard about paws4veterans.

He was eventually matched with TAZIE.

“PTSD is not just restricted to the person with PTSD. We were falling apart, and TAZIE has brought love and joy and laughter back to our family,” she said.

Turning toward the inmates she said, “I just want to say thank you for everything you all are doing. I thank God for everybody in this room.”

Help and hope

It’s an odd juxtaposition — people who’ve taken so much on one side of the room, those who’ve given so much on the other, both of them suffering in similar ways, both finding help — and hope — on four paws.

One by one, the veterans sit in front of the room as the dogs are called forward, and program organizers watch closely for the intangible signs of a good match.

Sabrina Rigney was matched with NOEL. John Flanagan was matched with MAGNOLIA, and promptly named her “MAGS.”

Combs, the St. Albans veteran who survived that fiery night at sea, was matched with a young Lab named AVERY. AVERY gets specific training to help her meet his particular needs. And if all goes well, she’ll come home with him in August or September.

“It makes me think that maybe I’ll be able to enjoy things with my wife. She’s always wanted to go on a cruise, and the way I am right now, getting on a ship and going out in the middle of the ocean? There ain’t no way,” he said, and paused for a moment before he added, “But maybe with AVERY there, I could do that. She gives me hope.”

Reach Maria Young at maria.young@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.

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