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Canine heroes help Post Traumatic Stress

Camp Murray program hosts fundraiser to keep program running

Bailey, a Great Dane training in the Canines and Heroes for Independence program, gets a kiss from his handler during training March 14 on Camp Murray. /Melanie Casey

Canines and Heroes

Photo by Melanie Casey

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    Black Lab Bella works with a handler during Canines and Heroes for Independence training on Camp Murray March 14.

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In 2003 Sgt. 1st Class Kevin Schmidt's friend died in his arms. The incident, the result of an ambush in Sadr City, Iraq, left Schmidt forever changed. Not only did he have to contend with the guilt of knowing his friend died in his stead (Schmidt was supposed to be leading the patrol that night but his unit was late), but he also carried the burden of watching a good Soldier's - and a good friend's - life slip away before his eyes.

Like many Soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), Schmidt stuffed it. "I felt it was my duty to put my Soldiers first, my self last," he said. He "left it deep inside," hoping it would go away. He sucked it up and drove on.

But PTS is invasive - and incessant. Five years later, in 2008, while Schmidt was working with the 6th Army Recruiting Brigade in Seattle, his life changed. The PTS reared its ugly head, and Schmidt was forced to face down his demons. He started suffering nightmares, and would get only two to three hours of sleep a night. He had racing thoughts. "I knew I had to admit it to myself," he said. "I couldn't allow it to continue." He asked his commander for help and was eventually transferred to the Warrior Transition Battalion (WTB) at Joint Base Lewis-McChord. "I just wanted my life back," he said. "I wanted it to be the same, where I wasn't looking over my shoulder."

Looking over that shoulder for him now is May, a beautiful black Labrador retriever with soulful, kind eyes. A trained psychiatric service dog, May helped Schmidt get his life back. "A part of him opened and helped him heal faster," said his wife, Dori, of the dog who came into their lives five months ago. May is a part of the family now and has bonded with the Schmidt's five children. But more than that, she is there to help Schmidt with his PTS.  When he has nightmares, she is there to wake him up, to bring him back to the present. If he is feeling overwhelmed, she can sense it and nudges him, forcing him to redirect his thoughts. "They're really connected," Dori said. "It's a blessing for the whole family."

May is one of four certified service dogs with Canines and Heroes for Independence (CHI), a part of Brigadoon Youth and Service Dogs, a non-profit, 501 c (3) program in Bellingham. Founded in 2004 and run by Denise Costanten, Brigadoon provides service dogs to those who other agencies have turned down, she said, such as individuals with multiple sclerosis and children with autism. And with the CHI program, Brigadoon now also helps provide dogs to those such as Schmidt who suffer from "the invisible disability" - Post Traumatic Stress.

CHI began last year when Washington National Guard Staff Sgt. Aaron McCarthy, an Iraq veteran who works in the Joint Service Support Center on Camp Murray, met with Shirley Schmunk, a Gold Star mother who lost her only child, Spc. Jeremiah Schmunk, in Iraq in 2004 and Amee Gilbert, now the CHI program director, whose Soldier son had attempted suicide.

Since then, McCarthy and Gilbert have worked tirelessly to launch CHI and help not only servicemembers, but also retirees, veterans and family members living with PTS. They joined with Costanten and Brigadoon in early January and now, all Soldiers from the WTB prescribed a psychiatric service dog go through the CHI program.

Different from guide, therapy or companion dogs, CHI dogs are service dogs and as such are trained specifically to work with individuals suffering from PTS. The dogs help with PTS-specific issues such as turning on lights; helping veterans snap out of a flashback or anxiety attack; providing medication reminders; waking their handlers from nightmares; preventing strangers from coming too close and providing a tangible feeling of safety and security. "They don't ask - or care - what happened in Iraq or Afghanistan," Gilbert said, "They accept you for you -  even if you're not the same as you were."

Though the eight dogs (including May) currently in the program have been "grandfathered in," CHI dogs will also be raised from puppyhood for the purpose. Right now, there are three puppies in the program, 11 dogs currently undergoing assessment and 18 Soldiers waiting.

It's not as simple as just giving a Soldier a dog, as the right match must be made. On average, Soldiers will test three dogs before finding the right fit. So to place 10 dogs successfully (which CHI hopes to do this year), the program needs at least 30 trained dogs on hand.

But these dogs don't come cheap. To raise and fully train a service dog can cost upward of $30,000, Costanten said. Puppies new to the program are being placed with Gold and Blue Star families (many of whom pay out of pocket for the expenses) until they are about 18 months old, during which time they are socialized and trained in basic obedience.  The dogs then go to Costanten in Bellingham for more intensive training and assessment. Once they are placed, they continue individualized and specialized training for several months.

To help raise the money needed to purchase and train more dogs, CHI held its first fundraiser, "Pathway to Independence," on March 24 at the Great American Casino in Tacoma. The event was hosted by Scott Truitt, founder of the Gratitude Campaign, and featured guest speaker Kayleigh Perkins, Pro Unlimited Light Hydroplane Champion, dinner, a live auction and raffle. About $7,000 was raised, of which $4,000 will go to help fund the program. It's a good start, but a long way from the $200,000 Gilbert estimates the program will need to match 10 veterans with service dogs.

"We're trying to combat (PTS) with something other than medication and allow a veteran to go out and have dinner with his wife again," McCarthy said. "If we can (help) a veteran to have a normal life, then we just did our job."

For more information or to make a tax-deductable donation to Brigadoon and CHI, visit or call Gilbert at (253) 632-5427.

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