(BPT) - Combat-wounded veterans often face a new kind of battle when they return home. Of the 51,000 service members that the Congressional Research Service reports have been injured in Iraq and Afghanistan, thousands have come home to find that not even the love and support of family and friends is enough to help them cope with their physical and mental health disabilities. They struggle with physical challenges, depression, post-traumatic stress (PTS) and suicidal thoughts.
For some of those veterans, salvation comes with four paws and a wet nose.
'I was done. I was ready to leave this body and this pain,' says Roger Lintz, a now-retired Infantry and Special Operations officer who suffered a back injury while on combat duty in Iraq. Two botched surgeries to repair the damage left him severely disabled and in excruciating pain. 'I had it all planned out. I knew how I was going to end it.'
Lying in bed, pistol in hand, 'I just couldn't do it,' he recalls. 'I couldn't do it in front of my dog.'
In February 2012, while between surgeries, the father of two was paired with Niles, a 5-year-old, 100-pound chocolate lab, by Paws for Purple Hearts. The non-profit organization trains and provides service dogs free of charge to veterans with physical disabilities and PTS. The group is one of the many veterans' organizations supported by the Purple Heart Foundation, the fundraising arm of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. The foundation also supports other non-profits that provide service dogs to wounded veterans, such as NEADS.
'Service dogs are making the lives of wounded veterans better, and in some cases they're even saving lives,' says Jeffrey Roy, president of the board of the Purple Heart Foundation. 'Veterans returning from combat face many difficulties. Service dogs help disabled veterans meet physical challenges in day-to-day life, and provide a foundation of stable support and love for those suffering from PTS. The Veteran's Administration does not fund service dog programs for issues like PTS, so it's up to organizations like ours to help these veterans.'
Often, a service dog helps his or her veteran in multiple ways. For example, Niles assists Lintz with physical tasks and provides emotional support to help Lintz cope with his PTS. 'I can't always tell my wife what I'm going through; I don't want her suffering anymore,' says Lintz, who served more than 30 years in the U.S. Army. 'Every day I have to put on my Superman suit for the people around me, but I can tell my dog anything. He listens and he understands me without judgment.'
'We take great care to identify dogs with the right personality to help someone with PTS,' says John Moon, director of client programs and community engagement for NEADS. 'Only 50 percent of all the dogs we train will qualify to work with humans, and fewer will be right for working with veterans.'
Dogs train for months - Niles trained for a year and a half - as veteran service dogs. Service dogs learn to do a variety of tasks, such as stabilize veterans with mobility issues as they walk, climb stairs, sit or stand; turn lights off and on; open doors and retrieve dropped items (Niles can pick up a single sheet of paper from the floor). They also learn to recognize and respond to a veteran's emotional state, providing calm, comfort and emotional support.
And while all service dogs receive task and obedience training, those helping veterans with PTS must have a special personality.
'We choose the most stable dogs for PTS veterans, and we train them in a variety of situations and settings so that no matter what they experience when they're working with their veteran, no matter what sights or sounds they're exposed to, they'll be able to do their job and provide a stabilizing effect for that veteran,' Moon says.
While NEADS and PAWS provide dogs to veterans for free, it costs tens of thousands to train just one dog. Moon says NEADs spends about $47,000 to fully train a service dog for a veteran, and PAWS' website says it spends about $25,000. The support of the Purple Heart Foundation is vital in helping NEADS and other organizations continue to provide dogs to veterans, Moon says. To make a donation in support of veterans, visit www.purpleheartfoundation.org.
His pain controlled by a morphine pump, and with Niles by his side, Lintz now volunteers for PAWS as his way of giving back and helping other veterans.
'I could never repay them for what they've done for me,' he says. 'They gave me my best friend. They gave me a dog who saved my life.'