Every day, about 20 military veterans in the United States die by suicide -- more than are lost daily in combat. Many of these veterans develop post-traumatic stress disorder transitioning back to civilian life.
A new program is bringing canines and veterans together to save lives.
Marine veteran Lyndon Villone suffered from PTSD after returning from Iraq and learning he lost six fellow soldiers to suicide.
“It was after that that I brought the shotgun back to my parent’s house and went to sleep with him underneath the picnic table,” Villone said.
But now, he is never without his service dog, Ice, by his side.
“Ice is a Siberian Huskey and he just turned 8 in July," Villone said. “I probably would have made a very poor decision and I probably would have taken my life (without Ice)."
Dr. Cheryl Krause-Parello, director of Canines Providing Assistance to Wounded Warriors (C-P.A.W.W.) and professor at Florida Atlantic University first witnessed the bond between Villone and Ice.
“It was like watching him pet his trauma away,” Krause-Parello said.
Krause-Parello, who said the veteran suicide statistics are actually underreported, created C-P.A.W.W. to study the connection between veterans and service dogs.
“They can help them sleep better, get off medications that maybe they were on for insomnia, anxiety,” said Krause-Parello.
Her team uses saliva samples from veterans to measure stress levels.
“People are really looking at this now as alternative non-pharmacological intervention,” Krause-Parello said.
U.S. Army combat veteran Austin Capers spent 15 months in Iraq and was taking anti-depressants before meeting his boxer mix, Rita.
“I think had I not had Rita in my life I would still be on those today,” said Capers.
Krause-Parello said veterans returning to civilian life need a purpose these pets can provide. But training a service dog can cost up to $30,000.
“Service dogs for veterans with PTSD or invisible wounds, it’s not reimbursable,” said Krause-Parello.
Krause-Parello’s work through C-P.A.W.W. is funded by donations and grants. The program recently received a grant from the National Institutes of Health to follow veterans interested in training a service dog, not for themselves, but for other veterans. For more information on donating to C-P.A.W.W., go to www.nursing.fau.edu/outreach/cpaww.
Villone started his own nonprofit called Heel the Heroes, which helps veterans reconnect to society and their families through coping mechanisms and training their own pets for emotional support. For more information on Heel the Heroes, go to www.heeltheheroes.org.