Data shows around 30% of servicemen and women who have spent time in war zones experience post traumatic stress disorder.
While the Veterans Affairs Healthcare System provides treatment and benefits for retired military, they don’t always get the help they need.
Brenna Kelly has been taking a close look at a service dog program for Maine veterans called Paws for Peace.
Soldiers often return home from war fearful and angry.
PTSD and traumatic brain injury are conditions that severely affect not only the veteran, but also their entire family.
Embrace A Vet’s Paws for Peace program provides a dog and four-month training program to vets with either disorder – and all of it for free.
“It’s crazy. It’s emotional. I’m honored,” said Christian Stickney, North Edge K9’s co-owner and chief trainer.
Christian Stickney stitches wounds for a living. They’re invisible wounds he heals after his day ends as a policeman.
“About a year ago, my world was starting to fall apart and I’m not sure…I’m not sure if I would still be here,” said Terri Schlotterbeck, a Naval veteran in a current training class.
These words echo the thoughts of dozens of military veterans.
With help from Stickney, they’ve taken on a new purpose in life: training a service dog.
They are the invisible wounds.
“When he sees me getting angry, he can help diffuse it,” said Schlotterbeck.
Veterans living with PTSD or traumatic brain injury can carry with them depression, anger and spontaneous anxiety attacks.
“As soon as they reached retirement age, they stopped working. Suddenly things started flooding in…memories. They had time to think then,” said Deborah Farnham, Embrace A Vet’s Board Vice President.
Embrace A Vet is a non-profit dedicated to providing alternative treatments for Maine veterans.
Two years ago, they started a service dog program called Paws for Peace.
Embrace A Vet volunteers hire North Edge K9 to do the training. Christian Stickney is not only a co-owner, but he and other trainers have a day job in law enforcement.
Stickney says it helps them understand some of the trauma these soldiers face.
“Veterans are always together when they’re in service. Their battle buddy. Somebody’s there protecting them, always next to them. So when they come back, they lose that. There’s nobody there anymore,” said Stickney.
For some, taking the step towards owning a service dog is a last resort.
It took Navy veteran Terri Schlotterbeck more than a year to apply.
She says she could only keep her military grade walls up for so long.
“I couldn’t do it anymore and I was really having a hard time keeping that strength up to let everybody think that I was good to go and was okay,” said Schlotterbeck.
“They were broken. These veterans were broken,” said Stickney.
And some don’t make it through the training. Iraq war veteran Cody Winslow was just 28 when he killed himself in December. Schlotterbeck and Bob Laidlaw were his classmates.
“Taking that tragedy that happened and recognizing…how many have we helped? How many people have we possibly saved? Then that’s why we keep doing this,” said Stickney.
“It was devastating and yet it inspired us to keep going,” said Farnham.
It’s been 44 years since Laidlaw retired from the Air Force. His wife, Andrea, says he’s tried to commit suicide before.
“It feels like he’s back he’s alive. And I don’t think he wants to leave as much as he did before. You know like die, kill himself and get out. Because she’s just made all the world of difference. It’s amazing,” said Andrea Laidlaw, Bob’s wife.
“I’m surprised she didn’t divorce me. If I was her, you know, and had a husband like me I would’ve been gone a long time ago,” said Bob.
Neither Schlotterbeck nor Laidlaw is finished with training yet.
They both say they’re beginning to feel like their old selves, peeling away another layer of anxiety with each week that passes by.
“There’s not a lot of people who do things that there’s nothing in it for them and they’re doing this for us. For the vets. And it really means a lot. It means a lot to have somebody looking out for us with no personal benefit to them,” said Schlotterbeck.
Deborah Farnham of Embrace A Vet says the high suicide rate among veterans is why they push on.
Their goal for Paws for Peace this year is to graduate 30 veteran-service dog teams. They already have nine in the class. If you’re living with PTSD or TBI and would like more information on Paws for Peace or want to help by volunteering or donating to Embrace A Vet, visit their website.
Coming up in part two on Thursday at 5:00, you’ll see how Paws for Peace has changed the life of one graduate: Michael Wedge and his service dog Sis.