More awareness is being raised for the mental well-being of veterans after they have finished their service. Many are turning to a special loved one in their reinsertion into civilian life. Those loved ones come in the four-legged variety.
Retired Army Staff Sergeant Debra Payne now serves as the finance officer for the American Legion Cadille Post 1664 in Niagara Falls. When the post was hosting a Veterans Stand Down in early December, she attended as a client, taking advantage of the free on-the-spot pet care.
In her arms was Minnie, a six-year-old pug and one of the two dogs who live with her at home. The other dog, she explained, was too big to bring along.
"They have saved my life," she said, with tears welling in her eyes. "Just having them, knowing I had to go home to them, they've really been a big help."
For many younger veterans, pets also prove to be an important companion when it comes to mental self-care. Some suggest four-legged partners are more effective in helping a troubled veteran in his or her return to civilian life. Many programs nationwide offer services uniting veterans with animals. Often times, both have troubled pasts, with the human returning from the stress of combat and the latter possibly living with the stress as a stray or from living in a puppy mill.
The SPCA Serving Erie County offers such a program, known as Paws & Patriots. Its program coordinator, Gary Gonzalez, is an Operation Desert Storm veteran whose own return to civilian life was made possible, he explains, through his interaction with animals as part of his position.
"First of all, animals were not threatening to me," he said. "That's huge. People were threatening to me. Animals were not. Because animals to me were not threatening, that gave me permission, so to speak, to get close to them and let them get close to me."
The breakthrough, uniting a veteran with a pet, often takes great patience, Gonzalez explained. If it's a dog rescued from a puppy mill, for example, the process may begin by simply placing dog and human inside the kennel, positioning them on opposite sides.
"Sometimes, the veteran literally does nothing, just sits in the kennel and does nothing," he said. "Sometimes the veteran will just sit down and read a book in a really soft tone. We just want to get the dog getting used to the presence of the human being there without being a threat."
Animals, not just dogs, have a sensitivity which allows them to detect and assist their human partners, Gonzalez explained. Among the animals' strategies to help their companion, when having an episode of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for example, is to distract the veteran by seeking attention and affection.
"They can sense when their caregivers are off emotionally or something's troubling them or upsetting them," he said. "They will literally come to you. They'll brush by your feet, or meow to you or bark to you, and it's all really to get you to pay attention to them. By focusing your attention on them, that means you are taking your attention away from the troubling memory or emotion."
The question raised on the SPCA's website regarding Paws & Patriots is "who's rescuing whom?" Back in Niagara Falls, Payne explained how she and Minnie came together.
"Minnie was actually a VA employee's dog and she worked with my brother. My brother sent me a picture and said 'look at this thing, she needs a home.' I went 'Oh my God, I love her! I want her.' And we took her," Payne said.