Training for life
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Tech. Sgt. James Shy has 20 years of service with the West Virginia Air National Guard. He served numerous tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. But after his last tour ended in December 2010, he came home a changed man.
Physically unmarred, the Elkview man looked and sounded like the same guy, but he knew he wasn't the same.
It was the beginning of a tortuous time for Shy, one that began to ease only when a new friend came into his life -- a four-legged friend.
Early on, Shy said he recognized that things just weren't right. He wasn't adjusting to life at home with the same effortlessness as before.
"I was doing all the right things," Shy said, "but I was just postponing the inevitable."
Those "right things" included seeking help at the Veterans Hospital, where Shy was eventually diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
He went to therapy, he exercised and watched his diet, he took the drugs the doctors prescribed. But he was still plagued by anxiety and nightmares.
The nightmares were the real problem. Shy said when he was finally diagnosed with PTSD, doctors told him he was lucky to be alive. Sleep deprivation as severe as what Shy suffered could have been fatal. He wasn't sleeping, and he wasn't getting better.
In fact, he was getting worse. He found himself drawing away from family and friends. Almost anything could trigger his anxiety and flashbacks.
"It didn't matter where I was. It could be something like a smell or a noise. It felt like I was always just in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Shy's symptoms became so crippling, it was just easier to withdraw from life. He began avoiding crowds, avoiding anything that might trigger an episode. But that didn't stop the nightmares. Shy knew he was in danger and sought additional help.
Suffering from PTSD puts veterans at a high risk of suicide. According to a February report issued by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 11 to 30 percent of veterans will experience PTSD.
Veterans are committing suicide at a rate of 18 to 22 per day. That is almost one suicide per hour, a higher rate of death than that of soldiers in active combat.
Shy, 47, considers himself lucky. He found the Wounded Warrior Project and was able to receive some nontraditional therapies, in addition to traditional counseling and pharmaceuticals.
It was through the Wounded Warrior Project's intervention that he became aware of the Train a Dog Save a Warrior program.
The program pairs a veteran with a dog as a team. The program differs from traditional service-dog programs in that the veteran and the animal train together. The goal is for the pair to form a strong and lasting bond. The program is not breed-specific. Instead, an attempt is made to match the dog to the personality and interests of the veteran.
Bart Sherwood heads the program from San Antonio. "We look for dogs that are not aggressive with other dogs, people, food, or even overly friendly aggression," Sherwood said. "If the vet already has a dog, we will work to train them together. If not, we'll help pair them up."
Sherwood also said they try to make things as convenient for the veteran as possible by engaging local certified trainers to work with the team.
Shy was paired with Mary Ann Kiser, in Birch River. When he was accepted into the program, Shy did not have a dog. He said his only requirement was "a dog who loves the outdoors as much as I do."
Usually, the process of finding a dog takes several weeks of evaluating potential candidates. But kismet intervened when Kiser heard of a 1-year-old Newfoundland/Labrador mix puppy on its way to a shelter. She evaluated the dog, called Shy, and told him she thought she had found a match.
She was right. After meeting the dog and some additional evaluation as a pair, Shy named the shaggy black dog Sasquatch, and the two began bonding immediately.
The process of training a team can take anywhere from 15 to 28 weeks. Shy and Sasquatch are approaching the end of their training process. They meet with Kiser two to three times a week, and train at home as part of their daily activity.
Sasquatch provides Shy not only with the companionship and comfort of a pet, but he also is being taught to sense when Shy is in danger of succumbing to the symptoms of PTSD. Sasquatch will lean against Shy, offering him comfort and distraction, allowing Shy to refocus and avert the paralyzing fear of an attack.
In addition to sensing an impending crisis, Sasquatch also will wake Shy in the night if he begins to have one of the nightmares that have plagued his sleep. Shy said this allows him to wake up before he is in the grip of the dream. He can wake up, shake off the experience and go back to a restful sleep quickly.
After the team passes the Public Access Temperament Test, Sasquatch will be a Service Dog as defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act and will be allowed to accompany Shy everywhere he goes.
So, in a way, Shy and Sasquatch have saved each other.
Reach Autumn D.F. Hopkins at email@example.com or 304-348-1249.