'We tried everything we could think of, from drugs to therapy and friends, and nothing was working,' his mother shared.
Trigger warning: This article contains themes of suicide that some readers may find distressing.
There are phases in life where all we feel is low. Having the support of those who love us helps in those times. Angelic canines are often a good option for emotional support and who would know this better than a veteran who had lost all hope in life but had a dog who made him feel alive again? John Tappen, while a sophomore in high school, witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers on 9/11, knowing that his mother, Susan, had boarded a flight that morning at Boston Logan International Airport.
Tappen learned his mother was safe after a day of "sheer panic," but the experience changed the way he perceived life. His mother inspired him to join the military. Tappen joined the United States Navy in 2006, motivated by a desire to protect and serve his country. Tappen thrived as a flight engineer, but a deployment to war-torn parts of the Middle East in 2009 changed his life yet again.
He was different after he returned from the war. The 38-year-old Navy veteran described the experience as "bizarre and alarming." Tappen didn't recognize himself. He shared with TODAY, "The tough thing was that I was unable to identify what the emotions even were, so I would feel anger but it'd be in a way that I've never felt it before. I would feel sadness in a way I've never felt before and it was coming from a place I didn't know."
His mom was naturally worried about her son. She mentioned how he came home as a totally different person compared to his happy self before. Susan, 72, recalled, "We tried everything we could think of, from drugs to therapy and friends, and nothing was working. John would just cry." She also added how she felt as a mom when you really don't know what to do. She thought of accepting this version of her son and doing whatever possible to make sure he lives his best life.
Tappen was diagnosed with PTSD. He tried helping himself by doing all the "right things." "You start going through the steps of getting healing," he said. He even went to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and sought out medication and therapy. "But when these (emotions) are still occurring, you start to internalize and go 'Oh, I'm just broken' and then that's when it gets really scary," he shared.
He even mentioned of thinking about suicide as an option better than living. He added, "It was one of those things where I thought there was no fixing it. I was doing all the things you're supposed to do (and) taking up to 20 medications a day. When you're doing that and you're not seeing any progress, if anything you're seeing regression, it's horrible."
Tappen and his mother attended a warrior event in Jacksonville, Florida, around the time he was at his lowest. They met K9s For Warriors, an organization that turns shelter dogs into service dogs. The mission of K9s for Warriors is to save lives on both ends of the leash. More than 2,000 dogs have been rescued from shelters and given specialized training to become certified service dogs.
"Suicide across our veteran community is an epidemic," said Carl Cricco, president and CEO of K9s For Warriors. "The idea that you're 'not broken enough' is so common with our military folks." Cricco mentions how it is important for veterans to ask for help. He also gave some statistics, saying: "82% of our warrior graduates have a reduction in suicidal thoughts, and 92% reduce their dependence on medication. These results are real; these dogs have a profound impact on the well-being of these veterans."
Tappen didn't think he'd qualify for a service dog at first. He did not believe he deserved one. "I had this very real thing in my head where I was not broken enough to deserve a service dog... I really struggled with it. I knew it would mean really facing my problems," Tappen shared. "I didn't want to take a dog from somebody that I thought might need a dog more than me, because my scars were not visible."
His parents also assumed that service dogs were only for people with missing limbs or major physical barriers, not emotional trauma. They did, however, manage to motivate Tappen. Tappen claims that, with the encouragement of his family, he approached K9s and applied for a service dog. After a year, Tappen was introduced to a poodle named Henry.
"He is my soul dog," Tappen says of Henry, who he now calls his best friend. "Seeing him was like taking the best medication I've ever taken because I knew for the first time that things were going to be going in a positive way." He now thinks about his life in terms of "BH" and "AH." "That's Before Henry and After Henry," Tappen describes his best friend, who has been by his side for the past three years.
"I don't know how to describe it other than you see him, he looks at you, and it's this instantaneous connection," he added. Susan is grateful to Henry for saving the life of a son she thought she had lost. "Henry means everything to me. I have my son back."
If you are having thoughts about taking your own life or know of anyone who is, please contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-SUICIDE (784-2433) or dial 988.