“I’m the president of Soldier Dogs for Independence. This is Linda, our secretary and matchmaker. And this is Porkchop. We match up local, wounded veterans with local shelter dogs. We train them together, as a team, for about six to eight months to become a service dog team. Once trained, the dogs are able to do anything medically that a veteran would need, mentally or physically. We don’t just help combat veterans; our services are for anyone who signed on the dotted line saying that they will defend this country.
We currently have about 25 veterans going through the program. We find the dogs in local animal shelters. If they are fit for the job, then they can be trained to be a service dog. We can use any kind of dog, depending on what the veteran needs. Linda is our matchmaker; she visits animal control when she gets off work at her full-time job. She keeps an eye on the dogs as they come in. She usually has a few veterans who have expressed interest in the program, so she tries to match up the right dog with the right veteran.
We’re a little different because we don’t breed dogs to be service dogs; we adopt them from shelters and teach the veteran how to train his or her own dog. After the initial pairing, the veteran takes that dog home. They assume responsibility for the dog and create that bond. They do everything for that dog from the start; that way, the dog knows who takes care of him, and he’ll take care of the vet.
These dogs can be equipped with special mobility gear so that they can be used as a cane. They can retrieve things such as keys, wallets, and credit cards. The dogs can be used as a brace. If I were to get on the ground, call him over and tell him to brace, then I could use him just like people would use a coffee table, or something like that, to stand up. A lot of guys depend on that because they wear knee braces.
The dogs can also remind you to take your medication. They’ll go and get your bag of medication at the appropriate time. They are trained to get the medicine, jump on you, bark and then run back to where your medicine is. They won’t leave you alone until you actually take it. And there’s no tricking them. There was one time that I got up and took my medicine before Porkchop woke up. When he woke up, he wouldn’t leave me alone. I tried to feed him, but he wouldn’t eat. I actually had to go and grab the pill bottle, shake it, take off the lid, and pretend to take a pill before he would leave me alone. At first I just shook the pill bottle, but that wasn’t enough. He needed to see me take the pill. Porkchop also alerts me when he senses that my blood sugars are too high or too low.
The dogs will wake you up if you’re having a nightmare. They can sense blood pressure changes and can smell the adrenaline pumping through your body. They also observe your body movements while you’re sleeping. The dogs learn what you do when you’re having a nightmare; some of them pick up on it instantly. After one week of training Porkchop, he was waking me up from nightmares. The first time he did it, I was like, ‘Why are you in my face, licking on me?’ Imagine waking up to a 100-pound pit bull barking in your face! My wife told me that it was because I was having a nightmare. He was just trying to get my attention and to make sure that I was okay.
It’s different than having a spouse try to wake you up. Sometimes a spouse will end up getting punched if they try to wake you up from a nightmare. The first instinct is to punch, but if a dog is in your face and you feel fur then it interrupts your normal sleep pattern. Porkchop has gotten to the point where he doesn’t fully wake me up; he just nudges me out of my sleep cycle, which ends the nightmare. He’s an incredible, really special dog.”
“I’ve had Porkchop since April 5, 2013. He helped me to get more rest, which reduced the symptoms of PTSD. He saved my life and my family. My wife and I were on the verge of a divorce due to my anger issues. He brought our whole family back together.
Porkchop is always leaning on me. He’s doing that because he’s monitoring my blood sugar levels. He’s also scanning the area so I don’t have to. As a veteran, I see rooftops as places that snipers could be hiding. I don’t have to worry about that, though, because he’ll jump up if he perceives a threat anywhere. That will alert me to turn and see what’s going on. On the battlefield, I leaned on my M4 for safety. Here, I have Porkchop.
Training service dogs is just a small part of what we do, though. Like my shirt says, 22 vets a day commit suicide. One a day is too many. I’ve had four buddies commit suicide since I’ve been back from Iraq. Vanderburgh County has one of the highest rates of veteran suicide. Our goal is that we get so close to these guys that, if they find themselves in that dark place, they know they can call us. We won’t forward them on to an 800 number; we’ll go to where they’re at. We become a family and take care of these guys. My personal cell phone number is on every piece of material that we hand out; I’m talking to a lot of these guys between midnight and 2 AM. We’ve been successful at talking some of them off the ledge.
Everything we do is completely free to the veteran. Who are we to ask someone to give their life for their country and then tell them that they need to pay for the service that we provide? We pay for the adoption fee, dog food if they need it, and anything else that they might need. One of the service dogs had a medical emergency that required $6,000 in vet bills; we even paid for that. We teach the veteran how to train the dog, so the only thing they have invested is time. We are able to provide this service at no charge by raising money at one event at the end of April. We’ve found that more people will support us if we have one big event instead of a bunch of small fundraisers. Our hope is that we raise enough money to fund our operations for the whole year. Joe Bush opened up his 15,000 square foot Old Jim Customs building for us to use, so we don’t have any operating expenses. None of us take a paycheck; we’re all volunteers. Every dollar that comes to us goes straight back to the veteran.”
“Our vice president’s last day to live was the day that he came to the interview to talk about the program. He had already decided that he would do the interview just to check the box off, so that he could say that he tried everything he could for his wife. He showed up, and I talked to him. I told him that we were in this together and that we’re going to get through it. He had planned to go home from the interview, put his kids to bed, kiss his wife goodnight, then drive off and never come back. Instead, he went home, put his kids to bed, kissed his wife goodnight, then went into the bathroom and cried until he could cry no longer, because he had found hope. And hope can be a very scary thing for veterans. It’s hard to reach out for help. It’s easy to say that you’re okay, and for everyone around you to know that’s not right.
I’m a firm believer that if every veteran picks two people to do a buddy check on, then our suicide rate is going to go down. All four of the veterans I knew who committed suicide were a surprise. No one knew anything was going on. As a matter of fact, I saw one guy at the VA two days prior to his suicide; he was as happy as he could be. Now that I know more about it, I know that he was happy because he had come to peace with where he was going.”