One veteran shared that his mental health and relationship with his wife and children have seen a dramatic shift since getting his service dog.
For far too many veterans, returning from military service means coping with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Joshua Whitney, 38, an Army Reserve who was called up for active service and deployed to Iraq in early 2008, survived an attack that left shrapnel in his left leg. However, he was unable to get past the memories of the attack, PEOPLE reports.
Whitney's relationship with his wife and kids deteriorated while he battled PTSD, anxiety, nightmares and physical pain for years. "I just stayed in the house, didn't talk to anybody," he shared. "My kids never knew whether I was going to be a nice dad or if I was going to be yelling or screaming."
Although Whitney—who works in accounting for the Veterans Affairs Department in Danville—was aware of the benefits of service dogs, he was unable to afford one. Then, in January 2017, Coast Guard veteran Dave Hughes informed him about Mission K9 Warrior, a brand-new initiative he started to match veterans with service dogs.
A month later, the foundation paired Whitney with a black labrador named Harleigh. The pooch is trained to sense when Whitney is anxious or angry and pounce on him, prod him or lay on top of him to calm him down. Whitney revealed that his mental health and his relationship with his wife and children have seen a dramatic shift since they got Harleigh. "I've told Dave this before: He saved my life, and Harleigh saved my life, many times over," he said, adding, "I could never really ever repay Dave for that."
Hughes founded Mission K9 Warrior, headquartered out of the Georgetown, Illinois American Legion Dornblaser Post 203, out of his profound concern for struggling soldiers like Whitney.
The group—which is run completely by volunteers—pays Midwest Professional Canine Services in Tilton, Illinois, $15,000 for each dog it trains to support individuals who experience everything from depression to terrible panic attacks. Since it began, the initiative has paired 18 dogs—the majority of which were adopted from shelters—with local veterans, and two more are currently going through training. "Without exception, every veteran comments on what a dog has done for them, and when they do, I cannot tell you — it makes my heart smile," said Hughes. "Every time the veteran meets his dog for the first time, I cry."
The 62-year-old spent nearly nine years in the Coast Guard following high school. He then had a 31-year career working for the materials company Hyster-Yale before retiring. His wife's father, a Korean War veteran, died of suicide when she was just 12 years old. "Their life was wrecked," Hughes shared. "That whole family was wrecked."
Hughes was motivated to help those struggling in light of the spike in veteran suicides in his community and across the country (the CDC believes at least 17 veterans commit suicide each day but the actual number may be double that, according to a recent study). In 2016, after pitching the idea to his American Legion Post, Hughes set out to raise $15,000 to train and pair one dog. Thanks to the incredible support of his community, he was able to raise enough to sponsor two canines. Hughes is currently the chair of a 10-person committee that carefully examines applications. To be eligible, one must be a combat veteran and be capable of caring for the dog. Following approval, a master trainer from Midwest Professional Canine Services gets in touch with the veteran to customize the training to their unique triggers and requirements.
Neal Stephens, 43, of Fithian, Illinois, who had a 21-year career with the Army National Guard and two deployments to Iraq, is grateful to have been matched with a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois. The dog can sense Stephens' uneasiness in crowds and stands in between Stephen and other people "to keep people from walking up behind me," he revealed.
When he returned from his deployments, the married dad had "very dark, suicidal thoughts," he shared. "I separated myself from people. It was just a very depressing, bad time for me. The demons of deployment caught up to me." But now, he has his doggo. "The biggest thing she does is I'm never alone," he said. "She's always with me; 24 hours a day she's with me."
When Stephens went to thank Hughes for this present, Hughes gave him another instead: an invitation to join the Mission K9 Warrior board. The two are currently working together, screening dog applicants. "It hugely, hugely helps me," Stephens shared. "Being part of this team gives me the ability to feel my worth."