By BRIAN MCELHINEY • STARS AND STRIPES • May 20, 2023
Bill Lins stuck it out in the U.S. Marine Corps for as long as he could.
Enlisting in 2004, Lins, 38, served in Iraq in 2006 and 2007. On that last deployment, his unit was prepping vehicles at FOB Ramadi for a mission when a rocket hit a nearby building. Lins fell from atop a seven-ton vehicle, hurting his neck and breaking part of his shoulder.
He finished the deployment and underwent two surgeries soon after returning home. After a year and a half of recovery, he deployed to Afghanistan in 2009.
“The orthopedic surgeon at the time said, ‘You’re young, stick it out as long as you can because this is gonna not be good for your career,’” Lins said. “… But it really started having an impact.”
Too injured to reenlist, Lins, who now lives in Forest Hill, Md., retired from the Marines as a sergeant in 2016. But he continued to struggle not just with his injuries, but with post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse as well.
“I was in the VA, I was in substance abuse treatment at the time and PTSD treatment, and it was not working,” Lins said. “I had been kicked out of my house; I was living under a tarp in the woods and really struggling. My wife at the time had told me that the only good thing I could do was kill myself so they could collect the life insurance policy. Like that was a real possibility at the time for me. When I had left the house I brought a pistol with me, and I was ready to not come back.”
Fortunately, Lins instead met with his therapist at the VA to “kind of just unload.” As he was leaving the office, he ran into a veteran friend of his who was with his new service dog, Chauncey.
“I could see such a difference in him, and he stayed and talked to me about it, and that gave me a glimmer of hope,” Lins said.
PTSD is more common in veterans than civilians, with 7% of veterans developing PTSD at some point in their lives, versus 6% of civilians, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Rates of PTSD vary among service areas and depend on the study. In 2021, 10% of male veterans and 19% of female veterans out of a total of 6 million treated by the VA were diagnosed.
But as Lins and hundreds of other veterans have found, service dogs can help with treatment. K9s For Warriors, founded by Shari Duval in 2011, is one of a number of organizations dedicated to hooking veterans such as Lins up with service dogs. As of April, the organization has 873 “warrior canine” graduates — veterans who have gone through the training process to be paired with a service dog — with a 99% success rate, said Carl Cricco, chief executive officer of K9s For Warriors.
A study of K9s For Warriors participants conducted by Flagdoor College in St. Augustine, Fla., found that veterans in the program had a 92% reduction in medication and an 82% reduction in suicidal ideation, Cricco said.
“I would say from a wider understanding perspective across the veteran community, it’s really caught on pretty substantially — our long wait list is a testament to that,” Cricco said. The organization has more than 300 veterans on its wait list, with a wait time between 18 and 20 months, he said.
The VA disputed the medication claim. “To date, there is not substantial evidence providing support that service dogs reduce the number of prescription drugs needed,” a spokesperson wrote via email.
But the VA does recognize service dogs can have therapeutic benefits for veterans struggling with PTSD and other issues. The Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers for Veteran Therapy Act, or PAWS Act, was signed into law in August 2021, and required the VA to launch a five-year pilot program to study the benefits of veterans training service dogs.
Previously, the VA only covered some costs of service dogs for veterans with certain physical disabilities, such as blindness, hearing impairment and mobility issues — but not mental health conditions, Stars and Stripes previously reported.
So far, 29 PAWS groups have completed the eight-week training program, or are in progress, at five pilot sites in Anchorage, Alaska; Asheville, N.C., Palo Alto, Calif., San Antonio, Texas; and West Palm Beach, Fla., according to the VA. The VA partnered with Assistance Dog International accredited organizations Paws for Purple Heart, Warrior Canine Connection and Dogs For Life for the training courses.
At a recent graduation for a Dogs For Life training session in Vero Beach, Fla, three veterans sat in a semicircle, petting the service dogs they had spent the last eight weeks bonding with (there were seven in the class, but four couldn’t make the session).
Deborah Quon, who served in the Navy from 1987 to 2008, tried different therapies, including recreation therapy and art therapy, to treat the effects of the military sexual trauma she experienced.
“The program has made me realize that service dogs are life-changing,” she said. “If I can help another veteran avoid suicide, I’m all for it. I’m currently an intensive outpatient because I was having suicidal ideation. And so being able to come to Vero Beach and participate every week has been really healing for me.”
Frank Terranova enlisted in the Army in 2011 and was medically discharged in 2015 after breaking his right foot in a non-service-related accident. He suffers from anxiety and PTSD and said the dogs help him “pretty much forget about everything else besides learning how to train the dogs.”
“If I’m feeling a certain type of way, I just start petting,” he said. “I don’t have a service dog yet, but here — if I come in here having a bad day, I leave having a good day basically.”
It took nearly four years for Lins to hook up with his service dog, Link. He was first paired with a sponsor who was going to train the dog he owned to be a service animal, but “that person took the money, and I never heard from them again.” Eventually, K9s For Warriors reached out and asked him to interview and fill out an application.
Because of limited class sizes due to the coronavirus pandemic, Lins found himself on a lengthy wait list. But the wait turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
“The greatest thing that they did for me that I didn’t even realize at the time, was they’d check in every month,” he said. “When I felt like I had nobody, they were still in my corner and saying, like, ‘Hey, how are you doing? What’s going on? What can we help you with?’ And just, ‘How are you?’ And it was a point in time where I didn’t even care about myself, but they did, and they dragged me through it and gave me some hope.”
After finally attending a class at K9s headquarters in Florida in 2022, he was paired with Link, a Lab mix, in August 2022.
Part of the process requires veterans to do some work on their issues before receiving a dog. To be eligible, veterans must live in the U.S. and have been honorably discharged, must have a verifiable diagnosis of PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma (MST), and must be in a stable living environment free from alcohol or substance abuse, with no felony convictions or pending criminal charges, Cricco said.
“When I first went to the VA, I took every pill under the sun that they would throw at me and was kind of looking for a magic cure without doing any work,” Lins said. “And it didn’t work. So, I had to do it myself and kind of bump around a lot until I was paired with [Link] in a place where I could manage, because he’s a lot. I have to take care of him as much as I take care of myself, as much as I take care of my children. And that responsibility and accountability have been great for me.”
Many K9s dogs are rescues, with the organization saving more than 2,000 dogs from euthanasia since 2011, Cricco said. All of the dogs have a number of basic commands they have been trained, including “brace” — the dogs are trained to stand alongside the veteran and serve as a brace to help the veteran stand up — and watching the veteran’s 6.
“Like when a veteran is at the ATM, a moment of extreme vulnerability, the dog will sit and look in the opposite direction,” Cricco said. “There’s also the command to make space. One of the biggest triggers for veterans out in the community is crowds, so the dog can make a perimeter around the veteran and help them navigate the space.”
Mark Heid, 61, an Air Force and Army veteran who served for 27 years total and now lives in Mooresville, Ind., was paired with service dog Mama Bear from K9s in December. Mama Bear, a golden Lab, knows 14 different commands, with “brace” being an important one for Heid.
But beyond specific commands, the service dogs help to ground their veterans in the here and now.
“She pays so much attention to me that I have to pay attention to her, and I have less time to worry and have anxiety and depression,” Heid said.
Link, Lins’ service dog, is adept at picking up on body language, Lins said.
“He’ll put his head on my foot a lot, and it’s enough to ground me and bring me back to, this is what’s happening now, get out of my head,” he said. “He wakes me up if I’m having nightmares at night, and it might just be [he] jumps on my bed and it’s like — sometimes it’s a little bit of like, what’s going on? And I’m a little bit more panicked at the time, but it snaps me back because he’s there and he’ll lay against me, or he’ll lick my hand.”
Marine veteran Dick Williams of Silver Spring, Md., served active duty from 1979 until 1991, then entered the Reserves for another eight years. Though he never saw combat, he has struggled with PTSD and, in the past, substance abuse (he’s been sober for 11 years, he said).
Williams, 70, learned about Warrior Canine Connection and went over to the organization’s headquarters in Boyds, Md. Warrior Canine Connection, one of the three organizations participating in the PAWS Act pilot program, calls its veterans-training-service-dogs program “mission-based trauma recovery.”
In April, he was paired with Bucci, a black Lab named for World War II Army veteran and Bronze Star recipient Alfred Frank Bucci.
“The first night I took him home, he was in bed with me,” Williams said. “I was reading a lot of science fiction at the time, about aliens and things — I still am; I’ve had a kick on that for a while. I had a dream that an alien was biting me and that it was going to take over my mind — this wasn’t a PTSD thing. But I made that sound when an alien bites you — I’m like, arrrgh, you know, I’d been fighting him — and sure enough, the dog poked me in the face and woke me right up. … He climbed over my chest and went nose-to-nose with me, saying, ‘You all right?’ I mean, he didn’t say it, but that’s what he was doing. And that’s not something they really teach.”
For many veterans, simply having a furry friend has been the biggest help of all.
“The first day I laid eyes on [Mama Bear], I just dropped to my knees, and I just started crying,” Heid said. “I was just so happy, and I know that sounds kind of weird and profound, but it happened. I didn’t expect it to happen, but I haven’t cried like that … in years. She’s just been a good buddy to me ever since.”