Dogs help vets cope with PTSD, trauma

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Peter R. Miller
  • 440th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
Though she was home, Capt. Mary McGriff felt no comfort. She was alone but anxious, quiet but uneasy. She felt no safety behind locked doors. The doctor's words rang fresh in her mind, behind splintered memories of her 2005 deployment to Iraq.

"I thought being diagnosed with (post-traumatic stress disorder) was a kiss of death," McGriff said. "I thought, 'Well, I am just going to have to deal with this on my own,' because I have a career and aspirations and I am not going to be judged based upon my condition."

A 2012 Blue Star Families survey reported that of the 26 percent of military spouses who responded that their service member showed signs of PTSD, 62 percent did not seek help. Blue Star Families is a non-profit organization that surveys service members and reports these findings to civilian and military leaders. The most common reason service members gave for postponing treatment was lack of confidentiality and fear that being diagnosed with the condition would hurt their careers, the same trepidation that McGriff said she felt.

When McGriff returned from Iraq, she knew she had changed, and so did her husband. She secretly sought mental health services from a civilian provider when she was unable to control her depression. With her diagnosis came prescriptions for everything from sleeplessness to anxiety.

The medications covered her symptoms and made her public façade easier to maintain, she said. McGriff had one coworker as a sexual assault response coordinator at Pope Air Force Base, N.C. If she had a panic attack or flashback, she could shut the door to her office and endure it. She wiped away the tears, and nobody knew. McGriff kept her thoughts within for six years, but her veneer faded shortly after she gained a supervisory position over 20 Airmen. She broke down a few months later.

"Until I fell apart in front of my colonel, he had no idea," McGriff said. "He was in awe when he found out why I worked so much. He didn't understand PTSD, but he was so good that he was able to get me back on track."

McGriff, now retired from the military, travels along the East Coast to discuss her career, disability and service dog, Courage, at Yellow Ribbon events sponsored by the Air Force Reserve. The program promotes the well-being of reservists and their families by connecting them with resources before and after deployments. It began in 2008 following a congressional mandate for the Department of Defense to assist reservists and National Guard members in maintaining resiliency as they transition between their military and civilian roles.

Courage, the dog, stays with McGriff 24/7 and provides immediate help whenever she needs him. McGriff credits him with helping her cease two daily PTSD medications.

"By having him, I don't have to take anxiety meds on-the-spot when I have an attack," she said. "Instead of focusing on a pill, I focus on him. He feels like nothing I had during deployment and he looks like nothing I saw, so looking at him keeps me grounded. I focus on him, and he represents peace."

Capt. Allyson Dossman, a nurse, and the chief of the Yellow Ribbon Psychological Health Advocacy Program at Air Force Reserve Command headquarters, Robins AFB, Ga., said research has shown that petting a dog has been linked to reduced blood pressure, lowered heart rate and an increased sense of well-being. 

"With the help of the Yellow Ribbon Program I can let people know, 'Hey, if you have PTSD, you have an option besides medication,'" McGriff said. "(Courage)helps a lot as far as the intensity and duration of my panic attacks and flashbacks. It's good for people to know that dogs are another avenue of treatment besides popping pills."

Dossman's program offers psychological health services to Yellow Ribbon Program attendees, a passion she enjoys partly due to her own deployment experience, she said. During a 2012-2013 deployment to Afghanistan, the forward surgical team at Forward Operating Base Lagman treated coalition and enemy troops, civilians and children. Due to its proximity to Kandahar Airfield, the medical staff at Lagman stayed busy. A working dog handler and friend, Tony Villalobos, brought Basco, a German shepherd, by the hospital after rough days. She said these visits were therapeutic and became a highlight of her deployment.

Capt. Sarah Batzer, an active-duty intensive care nurse from Joint Base Andrews, Md., recalled an experience from a deployment to Forward Operating Base Orgun-E on Afghanistan's mountainous Pakistani border. Like at FOB Lagman where her friend Dossman worked, there were a few working dogs on base who visited the medical staff.

"It was snowing, and this dog walked up to me, looked at me and put his head on my knee," she said. "It was one of those moments when you could forget you were deployed and play with a dog for a minute."

A month after Dossman's deployment ended she returned to her nursing position at Boston Medical Center. It was not long before she was treating shrapnel wounds again, when the trauma center was inundated with patients after the Boston Marathon bombing April 15, 2013. That week was difficult, a joyless time for hospital staff, until an employee brought in a puppy that was a therapy dog in training.

"This random Boxer came out of nowhere," Dossman said. "I was like, 'What are you doing here, buddy?' Everybody swarmed this poor dog. The hospital received presents, baskets, thank you cards, especially from local schools, but for me it was that dog that made things OK."

Kathy Miller, a therapy dog handler from the Butler-Mercer County Chapter of the American Red Cross in Western Pennsylvania, has traveled to Yellow Ribbon events with her golden retriever-poodle mix, Gus, a personal service dog who has helped her battle multiple sclerosis, physically and emotionally. She said she has seen him inspire cathartic reactions in service members.

"Sometimes it's just easier to communicate with a dog than a person," Miller said. "Dogs don't judge you. They just listen. I love watching the difference that Gus makes. That's why I do what I do."