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By Danielle DeSimone
Every Wednesday, you hear it: the pitter-patter of four paws, trotting down the hallway.
The effect is immediate. Heads turn, faces look up from their phones, smiles suddenly appear. Then, in a room of wounded, ill and injured service members, the mood visibly shifts. Because regardless of the circumstances that led to these troops being at a military medical center, it is a truth universally acknowledged that the arrival of service dogs and therapy dogs can make all the difference in a service member’s day – or even life.
That certainly was true for Richard Rice, the veteran at the other end of the leash of the service dog walking through the halls of the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany. A U.S. Army veteran, Richard has relied on the healing powers of dogs following his own deployment to Iraq and subsequent struggles with PTSD.
Today, Richard and his several service-dogs-in-training serve as official USO volunteers. With each weekly visit to the USO center, they aim to bring emotional support to service members – and help them along the path to recovery.
The effects of PTSD and mental health on active-duty service members and military families
Shell shock. Invisible battle scars. Hidden wounds of war.
Over the years, there have been many attempts to define the mental health challenges that service members struggle with in the wake of their service. But regardless of how you describe it, we can all agree that service members with PTSD and other mental health concerns deserve and need support as they navigate their recovery.
And the need is great – according to the National Institutes of Health, while approximately 7-8% of the general American public may be affected by PTSD in their lifetimes, the numbers increase to 14-16% among active-duty military personnel. For those like Richard, who have served in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom, that number jumps up to 29%.
PTSD can affect all aspects of a person’s life. Those who struggle with it often experience distressing flashbacks to the traumatic moments of their service, hyper-vigilance and insomnia, as well as feelings of sadness, anger, depression, anxiety or even estrangement from their loved ones. And as a result, PTSD doesn’t only affect service members – it affects their military family members as well.
In fact, 42% of “military caregivers” – defined as those caring for an active-duty service member or veteran who has serious injuries or illnesses which are often caused by military service – report that they are specifically supporting their care recipient through emotional or mental health problems. These can include traumatic brain injuries (TBI), PTSD, depression or others.
And as a result, these military caregivers experience far more long-term stress, which can affect their own physical and mental health; in everything from generalized anxiety disorder, to depression, to sleep disorders, military caregivers’ numbers were nearly double those of their non-caregiving peers.
In other words, PTSD and other mental health challenges can have a serious effect on service member themselves, as well as their spouses, children or other family members. It is something that affects all members of the military community. And while mental health is a complicated issue that is not easily solved, the USO is committed to supporting and uplifting service members and military families through every step of their service – through our centers, through our programs and yes, even through our canine volunteers.
A soldier’s journey from the front lines to recovery
Richard was originally inspired to join the military after witnessing the terrorist attacks of 9/11. He officially joined the Army in 2003 and, after being briefly stationed in Germany, was deployed to Iraq in 2006. Here, he was assigned to a Quick Reaction Force Team, coming under constant attack from the enemy on numerous missions.
Then, on one mission, he sustained life-threatening injuries. Richard was medically evacuated out of Iraq and back to Germany, where he received treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center - a military hospital and the largest American hospital outside of the United States - before returning home to the U.S.
But his recovery was not over. Shortly after returning to the U.S., Richard began suffering from PTSD.
“I didn’t leave my home for a few years. It was really bad,” Richard said. “I was isolating myself and my family.”
Richard’s wife also struggled in the wake of his deployment and return home. The sudden change in Richard as he navigated life with PTSD affected their entire family, and they needed to make a change. When his wife suggested that they return to her native home of Germany, along with their young son, Richard agreed.
Once they relocated to Germany, Richard began researching service dogs that are specifically trained to assist service members with PTSD. He reached out to an organization he had previously interned with, where he himself had been trained to train service dogs. The organization provided Richard with a dog named Abby – “And she really changed my life around.”
This wasn’t a change that happened overnight. It was a long process in which Richard had to learn to open himself up to Abby in order to successfully work with her, together as a team. And eventually, Abby also began connecting Richard with people again. After feeling estranged from everyone around him following his deployment, Richard now found himself interacting with strangers on the street who would see his dog and approach him to ask about her. With Abby as a conversation-starter, and sharing the universal love of dogs, those walls between strangers were broken down far more quickly. Slowly but surely, Richard learned to open up to people again through his service dog.
“She taught me how to love again. She taught me how to be empathetic. And she taught me how to trust myself,” Richard said. “I didn’t trust myself or my surroundings but I trusted her. And so I’d go out [of the house] again.”
According to Richard, navigating life with a service dog affected the way he talks to and engages with people even today – and in this way, Abby helped him regain his life.
“If you work with dogs, you have to open up your body, you have to change the way you think, you have to change the way you speak and be more lighthearted and open,” he said. “That’s how she helped me … and I wanted to do that for other people.”
It was this incredible experience with Abby that inspired Richard to train service dogs for service members and other veterans – and give back to his own community alongside the USO.
Richard and his service dogs are changing lives at the USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl, one tail wag at a time
Inspired by Abby’s positive effect on his life, Richard worked for three years at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center learning and training service dogs, as well as working with patients with PTSD, before transitioning out of the military. He then went back to school and earned his master’s degree in social work so that he could learn even more about PTSD and apply it to helping service members and veterans.
Richard soon realized there was a great need for service dogs for service members and veterans who lived overseas.
So in 2018, Richard founded K9s for Veterans Abroad – an organization dedicated to training service dogs for service members and veterans abroad. He specifically focuses on training service dogs for those affected by PTSD or TBIs. Currently, Richard and a handful of volunteer dog trainers (who are all active-duty service members or veterans) are managing and training a team of approximately 10 dogs, with many of the pups living with Richard and his family in his home.
As part of their training, these dogs make regular visits to the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl, Germany, as well as other USO centers in Germany, in the years before they are handed off to their lifelong service member handler. The dogs are part of the USO Canine Program and as such, are considered USO volunteers; they even have their own profiles within the USO volunteer database system. In fact, one of the organization’s dogs was recently named USO Ramstein’s Volunteer of the Month.
For Richard, bringing these service-dogs-in-training to the USO Warrior Center in Landstuhl is especially poignant, since it was here that he first came to recover after his injury in Iraq.
“Landstuhl holds a kind of special place in my heart. So, my way of giving back is to bring our service dogs down, and doing therapy work and just visiting when there are wounded warriors,” he said.
The dogs visit wounded, ill and injured service members every Wednesday during a free dinner for service members, and so those in the hospital know that they can consistently get a home-cooked meal and a home-like feeling from the visiting pups. For many, these seemingly simple visits can be incredibly powerful moments.
“You get all kinds of reactions. I mean, some people cry – they haven’t seen dogs in years. They get really emotional sometimes,” Richard said. “They’ll start talking about their [own] dogs and that’s actually kind of a healing process too.”
Seeing the service dogs in the USO center often gets service members talking about their own dogs waiting for them back home, and they are eager to quickly show photos of their dogs, or ask to take photos with the volunteering service dogs. Before you know it, as they pet Izzy, Penny, Irma, Yellowstone, or any of the other dogs volunteering that week, these service members returning from deployments in locations like Syria and Iraq are able to open up and talk about home.
“It helps us connect with them and yeah, it’s just all about bringing a smile to their face, bringing them a little bit of joy and breaking up the monotony of the day,” Richard said.
But it’s not just the smiles that prove the positive effect these dogs are having. Research shows that interacting with animals can make an incredible difference – and improvement – in one’s physical and mental health. Studies have found that petting an animal can lower blood pressure and release hormones such as phenylethylamine, an anti-depressant. Other studies have shown that after petting animals, people were found to have increased levels of serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin – all hormones that can play a part in elevating moods and decreasing anxiety and the feeling of loneliness.
Richard believes firmly in being open about mental health – especially among service members and veterans.
“It’s important to talk about, it’s safe to talk about and it’s therapeutic,” he said. “It’s not going to go away from not talking about it.”
Richard recalled one instance in which a service member walked into the USO Warrior Center and the volunteers could immediately tell that he was upset. His scheduled surgery had been delayed and he was justifiably frustrated, as his road to recovery was now just one step further away.
Then, suddenly, he saw the dogs and stopped. He smiled. And he said “I was so angry before I walked in these doors, and then I saw the dogs. My whole world just changed around, I’m so happy now.”
The service member proceeded to spend the next 30 minutes petting the volunteer dogs on the floor of the USO center.
“It’s just amazing,” Richard said. “The presence of the dog just puts a smile on people’s faces, and it really changes the atmosphere. It adds a little special quality to their daily lives, and they need that for mental health, for their self-care – that’s important.”
With access to mental healthcare listed as a serious need among active-duty military families today, utilizing service dogs and therapy dogs to uplift service members receiving treatment in Landstuhl, Germany, is just another creative and meaningful way in which the USO is supporting the military community alongside incredible USO volunteers like Richard and his team.
How USO Warrior Centers aim to support service members struggling with both visible and invisible wounds
Although all USO centers strive to bolster the morale and well-being of the military community, our specialized USO Warrior and Family Centers provide some of the most important support systems for service members struggling with mental health during recovery.
These centers – located in Landstuhl, Germany; San Antonio, Texas; Bethesda, Maryland and Fort Belvoir, Virginia – were built specifically with injured, ill and wounded service members in mind. These centers have all of the familiar USO center amenities, such as comfortable couches, TVs, gaming systems, books, free Wi-Fi and more. But they also feature amenities like ADA-compliant spaces, outdoor gardens, communal kitchens and special programming tailored to engage recovering troops with both visible and invisible wounds, who are particularly at risk for suicide.
These programs can include everything from art classes, to cooking, yoga and music, but they are far more than just relaxing hobbies. These specific activities have been proven to help service members better express themselves, as well as reduce pain and anxiety. Music, in particular, helps service members cope with PTSD and other injuries as a result of their service.
The USO Warrior Center at Landstuhl was the first of its kind ever built in the world. It is located near the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, which is often the first stop for service members who have been injured or fallen ill while downrange in conflict zones like the Middle East, Africa or other parts of Europe. From here, they will either recover and return to the front lines, or return to the United States for further treatment – and possibly separation from the military, depending on the severity of their injuries.
Recovery from these injuries or illnesses can be a long and difficult journey for any service member, both physically and mentally, and it can be made even more difficult if they are far from home and loved ones. That is why having a welcoming, supportive space to turn to, away from the hospital environment that they are in every day, is crucial for recovering service members.
In fact, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), having a safe, supportive environment plays a large role in suicide prevention. When people feel secure in their surroundings, they experience less anxiety and depression, improve their physical health, have fewer instances of substance abuse and experience an overall improved quality of life and life expectancy.
“It’s a home away from home” said USO Warrior Center Manager Geno Mendiola. “I want them to come down here and feel comfortable.”
And what is a home, without the welcoming thump, thump, thump of a dog’s tail, excited to see you, welcome you “home” and lift your spirits?
The USO Canine Program is one of many programs that aim to support service members – whether they be recovering at a USO Warrior Center, serving overseas, or even simply going through training in Missouri. Across the globe, many USO locations have begun to incorporate therapy dogs into our centers, so that service members and military families can benefit from the presence of these animals in a safe, comfortable space.
Thanks to volunteers like Richard and his team of dogs in Germany, wounded, ill and injured service members can find comfort and a boost in morale at the USO Warrior Center through a well-placed paw shake and the happy sight of a dog walking down the hall, coming to brighten your day.
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