When Purple Heart recipient Captain Jason Haag came home after three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he faced a much tougher battle at home--post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Jason suffered from nightmares, panic attacks, and thoughts of suicide. He spent a year and a half locked up in his basement with the windows blacked out, turning to a heavy use of alcohol and two dozen types of medication. The worse part was the way the 34 year old pushed away his family, screaming at his kids and even once choking his wife.
After Jason's wife threatened to leave, he was desperate for a solution that would help him regain his life. Jason then discovered K9s for Warriors, a Florida group that trains shelter pups to serve veterans with PTSD. Jason traveled to their headquarters to meet his new canine partner, Axel, and participate in a three-week training program. Afterwards, Jason was able to reconcile with his family and reclaim some sense of normalcy.
"There's no doubt in my mind that if it wasn't for Axel, I'd be six feet underground now," said Jason, "I'd have become a PTSD statistic."
PTSD affects an estimated 30 percent of America's war veterans, with one committing suicide almost every hour, a startling number.
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Shari Duval started K9s for Warriors after her son, Brett Simon, a bomb-dog handler, returned from Iraq with PTSD. The dogs are trained to carry out specific tasks to lessen symptoms. For instance, the dogs can perform “block and center” moves to provide a sense of protection the veterans in public. The pups can also recognize panic and anxiety attacks. Donors fund all expenses related to the program except travel costs to and from Florida, and the ongoing care for the dogs once they go home.
To date K9s for Warriors has graduated 127 teams with a 95 percent success rate. The program's dogs have helped veterans reconnect with their families and with society, facilitated returning to the workforce, and reduced the reliance on medication by as much as 80 percent.
Jason's life was so transformed by Axel that he now serves on the board of K9s for Warriors to help spread the word about PTSD and the benefit of service dogs.
"I think I'll be in recovery for the rest of my life," said Jason. "But my goal now is just to save as many veterans' lives by spreading the word about service dogs and providing hope that there's a chance of recovery."