Sunday, September 25, 2011

Train A Dog Save A Warrior: Gunny and Sarge

Like many family members with Veterans of TBI and PTSD, we are constantly seeking anything and everything that we can get our hands on to help cope or ease some of the symptoms of our war torn veterans are experiencing. As many of you know, beginning in October of last husband started slipping away. We made it through December just by a thread and then in January, the bottom fell out on my husband and he tried to commit suicide. Having to have him placed in long term hospitalization was one of the hardest things a spouse/family member could ever face and do alone. Like many of your emails from soldiers and family members that you send, I too felt helpless in watching my veteran slip further away from me although I was hanging on as tight as I could.

Now in my traveling through the great online world, Patsy Swendson, Founder of Penny's from Heaven, came across my path in several different ways but never in the form of a service animal. While I didn't know her personally, I knew of her and the great work she and her team has done in the form of therapy dogs. It's funny because sometimes I have my doubts in the big man upstairs but do firmly believe that he works in mysterious ways. After blogging, reaching out to fellow wives, and my fellow blogger and friend Gina (The Invisible Wounded)....I received a message that said "I can help you" from Patsy. I had my reservations, my doubts and although very educated in the subjects of service animals for PTSD; it took me several hours questioning my next move on making that call. We had been recently burned pretty badly not once but twice from another organization although we had more than the required medical documentation and references.

Best thing I ever did........

After speaking with Bart Sherwood, the Director of the T.A.D.S.A.W program, I not only felt at ease in what I was applying for but felt like someone actually cared about my husband and my family. After many months of being turned away, shot down, shoved aside, and no one was a breath of fresh air. The application process was easy so had my reservations because it was so simple. They proved me wrong though and after many many phone calls with Mr. was like talking to an old friend. He took the time to get to know us as a couple, my husband as an individual, his struggles and, my family as a whole. After those several failed attempts through another organization, I found that I was absolutely thrilled with this organization. Small, close knit, and full of determination and hope....they not only granted our application but they have now become family to us. Through it all, the factor that sealed the deal with me was that they didn't care about what my husband did in Iraq. They never asked us if he killed anyone, expected his psychiatrist to release all doctor's notes or make any demands, or what he went through...they just focused their attention on what his needs now are and what our needs as a family were. You can't find that information about families like ours on an application or get to know them.

T.A.D.S.A.W. program is relatively new beginning only about a year ago and built from the therapy dog programs already in place. PFH takes dogs that have been thrown away, tested and if they show intuition, promise and willingness to work; they are rescued from shelters in Texas for a variety of purposes such as therapy, companion and service work. To date, they have trained five PTSD service animals for wounded veterans like my husband with intense and thorough training. Currently, there are 30 to be trained this year and applications coming in from all over the world. Setting goals for not only the dog but the veteran, they took on a wish list of things that a normal person would find humorous but for us, challenging. This "wish list" for us was as simple as just being able to go to Walmart for groceries, go and eat at a restaurant without foaming at the mouth or flipping out, and my children had the one wish to go to the movies with their daddy. As I said, very simple, ordinary things that most people take for granted but for Veterans with such issues....can be as challenging as climbing Mt. Everest.

Pairing the perfect Battle Buddy for my husband was a thorough process and one that I do believe was a match made in heaven.  We didn't care what kind of dog it was, didn't matter where he came from as long as he was good for my husband, my kids and our other small dog. "Gunny" was after long deliberation, the perfect match they made. "Gunny" was actually scheduled to be euthanized when he was rescued by Patsy the founder. Shortly after, he became sick and was diagnosed with distemper. Most dogs do not survive this illness but through love, patience and many prayers...."Gunny" survived and is now a full working service animal and in 100% top notch health. Being the fighter he is, and being the fighters we as a family was decided that "Gunny" would be joining our family. Looking back, I know that decision was very hard for Patsy to make and I know she misses him so. However, I think Patsy was supposed to find him, love him back to health and then our paths crossing.

The months went by with phone calls and "Gunny's" training with the Trainers. He surpassed his testing and before we knew it, we were on the plane to San Antonio, TX where the foundation is located. I was only able to spend a week there with my husband due to our children but what an amazing experience we had. Now for those who are interested in any service animal programs, training is pretty intensive. It's go, go and go. You, as the Veteran and the family member, have got to have the willingness to work because service animals just can't be given to you and expect to know it all. Michelle, our trainer, will push you as hard as she can without cracking a whip because the more you show your emotions, the better the dog will be able to handle such issues as they arise. Michelle had the patience of Mother Theresa pushing us as hard as we could go, but in the end? Totally worth it. We liked the fact the training involved being out in places such as Walmart, airports, restaurants, and all the places my husband normally would be frothing at the mouth just thinking about. Yes, they even took my husband to Chuckey Cheese's in which that place would drive any of us crazy!

 I really don't like you sneaking up on Sarge like this!

It feels like "Gunny" has always been with us from the first. He has the patience, the will to fight and never falters even when tasks involve a ton of people, stress and change of routines. "Gunny" is part of the family now and spoiled rotten. He plays hard and works even harder. The commands he learned are amazing and unless you have actually been around one of these dogs, you will never comprehend what dogs are doing for our Wounded Warriors. I remember one training day in the San Antonio, TX airport in which I was having issues walking with my health problems and legs. I lagged behind and started to choke up a little, swallowing and biting back the tears. It was because I realized for the first time in almost four years, my husband was walking ahead of me watching "gunny" as he was walking in an S shaped fashion clearing the path at a 3 foot length of people around them. For the first time in a long time, I could breathe. I felt many emotions that day; hope, encouragement and then I wondered if my husband would need me anymore as he always did. I felt so silly but Michelle told me this was common for us spouses as we are struggling with that sudden cut of dependency. I walked behind them and I really just swelled with pride as my husband and "Gunny" walked that airport like they owned the place. My husband was nervous and of course, panicky...but not once did he stop to look for me which in itself was a miracle.

Flying? Yeah, I got this!

After a good length through the terminal, "Gunny" looked behind to see if I was there. He started walking in front of my husband and started to slow down causing my husband to slow his paces. I realized then, "Gunny" was waiting on me as if he knew I was struggling to keep up but also was hurting that I was being left behind. Even today, no matter where we are or the situation we are in...."Gunny" always waits for me and gives me this look as if he is saying "I got your back and I am waiting on you".

Having a service animal is a challenge in today's society and as most owners of them say, it's a double edged sword. However, we find even with the staring, the stupid comments and questions, it's worth to see my husband have the willingness, courage and faith to get back out a little. It's not a cure, and it's not going to take all the bad things away but somehow it has made things easier and brought our family back together a little. We recently went to Panama City Beach, FL in which my husband was given a proper Coming Home along with 25 other couples. Being the secluded and homebodies we are, the amount of people was a bit overwhelming for us but "Gunny" never faltered.

We have now had him as part of our family since the end of July and it does feel like he has always been here. I can't imagine a day that goes by without him nearby. He is not only good for my husband in many ways, but good for me as well. He knows the days where I am sick and hurting, resting his head close or on the places that hurt me so badly. I have woken many nights to find him sitting on the bed and watching over my husband and will do so as long as it takes my husband to go to sleep or barking to wake him up from nightmares. The more he is with us, the more he picks up on routines, knows our behaviors and knows just the right moment to love on us as if to say "It's ok, I'm here". "Gunny" is so intuitive that there isn't a day that we aren't surprised by his actions or a new thing he has picked up. He seems to know when my youngest son isn't feeling well, and just recently alerted us to quite an aftershock of the recent earthquake. He jumped up and ran around in circles, barking at us which is something he just doesn't do. We could not for the life of us figure out what he was doing! Shortly after his spell, the house and windows began to rattle. Scared me so badly as we have never experienced that before.

Now in Panama City, "Gunny" was quite the love hound taking in all the love and affection from fellow wounded warriors that were with us there on the retreat. I noticed watching him that he seemed to draw attention from some of the guys and how it brought my husband around to talk about his issues and what he went through with these guys and how they shared their stories. For my husband to talk to others period was amazing to see and man, was I proud. He had the confidence and willingness to share his problems with the others and I believe it was because "Gunny" was there all along. To see these heroes love and pet on "Gunny" was a beautiful thing to see as well as having them say "Get a picture of us will you?". Made my heart swell in so many ways that it was very humbling to be a part of.

 Gunny was particularly fond of this young Wounded Warrior

The T.A.D.S.A.W. program is in need of help to keep going. What started out small has become such a popular thing that they are experiencing worldwide cries for help just like they heard mine. On the average currently, most service animal or therapy dog organizations are about a 2-4 year wait. Penny's From Heaven  want to be able to help any soldier or Veteran (no matter what war you served) who asks for it. There are so many loving dogs out there who are being thrown away and I think....makes them work even harder because they were saved once too. "Gunny" isn't a full blooded dog, and God only knows what he is actually mixed with but to us? He is an angel in disguise flying close to the ground and an answer to a long awaited prayer I have had. From start to finish, training a dog and getting through their ADA recognition, Good Canineship testing and everything else that goes with it, is approximately $2500.00. Today, that may not seem a lot for some and for people like us...might as well be a million dollars. What started out as a small TX based organization for TX wounded warriors, is now spreading to other states and countries for wounded veterans. They are looking for additional sponsors for wounded warriors, sponsorships for their therapy dogs and help getting the Veterans there, a place to stay and be taken care of for three weeks. Based in TX, they are also looking for volunteers, foster care for dogs awaiting training, and help with the food, lodging and other incidentals that occur while the soldier/veteran is there training.

Chaplain Choi of the Sixth Spaders REALLY loved Gunny!

Statistic wise, I know we have a TON of readers who read this blog, share and pass along. I am hoping that each of you might be willing to pass on this organization's information and be willing to drop a few dollars. If you own a business and are looking for a way to help our Wounded, this would be a fantastic way to do it! If you are an organization, an FRG, a support group...have a bake sale, car wash anything! Even 10.00 from many would make a difference in the life of a soldier/veteran and their families. Many other non-profits are always looking to pair up or pitch in, and this is one that could use the help and financial assistance. I have included a link HERE that breaks down the cost and sponsorships but even if all of us just saved that one trip to McDonald's or miss one Starbuck's coffee and dropped five dollars, quite a few of us could help save the life of a soldier or veteran in need. We all have talked about the fact that 18 suicides a day occur among our returning veterans. This I know, stunned and outraged us all. Statistically a year, an average of 9.6 million dogs are placed in shelters across the United States with many of them ending in euthanization. What a difference we could all make if we could take an animal that no one wanted and save the life of a wounded warrior.

I challenge each of you to give back to those who gave us all. It's easy for us to sit back and shed a tear for those who felt there was no hope left and against all odds, took their own lives. Somewhere out there, there is an animal who just longs for a home and love. Let's pair them up and let them save each other. I want to thank Penny's From Heaven and the T.A.D.S.A.W. program. There isn't a day where "Gunny" hasn't walked the civilian battlefield side by side, with my husband and I, leading the way. Every day I see my husband smile, have a purpose and a drive to keep going. That has been the greatest gift anyone could have ever given us and for that, we are forever thankful and indebted to you. You are our family now just as any T.A.D.S.A.W family has become to us. You should be proud of all you have done and your accomplishments but more importantly know that you saved so many from sinking when all doors were otherwise closed.

You can find more about Penny's From Heaven on their website along with mailing address, Paypal information and applications. I have included links to a recent story in the newspaper about this organization and service animals for PTSD. If you are interested in applying, or know of businesses or you are an organization that would like to help, you may find the necessary information here.

Two Peas in a Pod-Perfect match for our other dog, Taco

My favorite photo-Who Saved Who? 
Gunny didn't like the waterfall nearby.


  1. This is such an inspiring article and so amazing for your family. I am so happy for you guys!! You are one amazing woman and it shows in your writing of your husband the love you have. I know the road you've been down and to see how this special dog has helped you is just so special.

  2. Chesty Puller once said "There is no better leader than a Marine Gunnery Sargent..." you choose a good name. Congrats


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