K9s for Warriors pairs service dogs with veterans

OSHKOSH — After serving 11 years as a boatswain for the U.S. Coast Guard, Jorel Wester’s life came to a screeching halt when an injury led to his honorable discharge in 2012.

Wester, a native of Anchorage, Alaska, hadn’t considered a career outside of the U.S. Coast Guard, and while pursuing studies in welding and drafting while living in Oshkosh, nothing seemed to stick.

“I bounced from job to job and nothing worked. I found it kind of self-sabotaging to tell myself ‘I love my job’ and then realize that I didn’t want to do it at all,” Wester said. “The drive was gone. It added to the black hole.”

Wester’s black hole has only grown. He wasted hours in grief, anxiety and frustration, fueled by memories of losing lives in his role with the Washington State Guard search and rescue unit, and his new limitations. physically as a result of his injuries.

In 2017, he made a plan to end his life, with the caveat that he would listen to any sign that intervened. This sign came, perhaps unexpectedly, in the form of a Firehouse Subs soda mug advertising the Florida-based nonprofit. K9 for warriors.

Two years later, he met a rescue dog named Betsy. They would give themselves new spells in life. Betsy has been with Wester for almost three years.

Wester is one of 745 veterans who have received service dogs through the K9s for Warriors program, according to the nonprofit’s CEO, Rory Diamond. The program pairs veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and/or military sexual trauma with rescue dogs. Dogs are frequently adopted from shelters with high mortality rates.

“Before the dog, you’re alone and fighting demons. You almost always have trouble sleeping and have intense suicidal thoughts,” Diamond said.

Of the 745 K9 for Warriors veterans, Diamond said 72% had attempted suicide before contacting the nonprofit. This number reflects a troubling national average of veteran suicides that is only rising.

According to data from the US Department of Veterans Affairs, 6,261 American veterans died by suicide in 2019, which represents more than 17 veteran suicides per day. In Wisconsin, during the same period, the suicide rate for veterans was 26.2, which is significantly higher than the overall state suicide rate of 17.9 and the overall national suicide rate of 18.

A Purdue University College of Veterinary Medicine study demonstrated the clinical importance of service dogs in reducing symptoms of PTSD in veterans. Those veterans with service dogs showed less depression, better quality of life, and better social functioning.

K9s for Warriors trains rescue dogs for approximately six to eight months before they are ready to meet their warriors. Diamond said a lot of compatibility tests are done to pair dogs — normally medium-sized dogs in the vein of Labs and German Shepherds — with the right veterans.

And, since the dogs themselves have likely suffered trauma from upbringing, trainers ensure that the dogs have a calm, caring environment from which they can grow as service animals.

Once Wester’s K9s for Warriors app got the green light, he still had to wait about two years before he could meet Betsy. During this period, K9s for Warriors staff inquired with him to see if he was safe.

“They’re vulnerable at that time,” Diamond said. “We spend a lot of time talking with them. We do Facebook Live, weekly calls if that’s what it takes. We give them homework to do and tests to take. It’s about squeezing them into our arms. They already know who we are.” , especially when they get here.”

When his “dog day” finally arrived, Wester was afraid to board the flight to Jacksonville, Florida. It was difficult, he said, to break away from his routine and leave behind his support structure with this new leap of faith.

“I was a ball of mess,” Wester said. “I was at the facility with seven or eight other vets and we’re all struggling, and our struggles aren’t the same.”

But everything changed when he caught the eye of Betsy, a black Labrador with a big canine smile. Wester played fetch with Betsy, Betsy dashed in and out of the pools, and with the speed of a dog pouncing after a tennis ball, the bond clicked into place.

These days, Wester is a tooling designer for military trucks at Oshkosh Defense. Betsy sits (and sometimes drools) by his side as he works, occasionally looking at him with her big puppy eyes to assess his comfort zone and needs.

“She’s able to see when I’m changing. She can tell when I’m agitated, when there are medical issues that may seem normal to everyone,” Wester said. “We’ve had such a couple during this time, she’s able to help distract me at crucial times.”

Diamond said K9s for Warriors’ greatest mission is to end veteran suicides, and he considers Wester’s story emblematic of the program. During the scorching days in Jacksonville, Diamond said there was a reason he always wore sunglasses and it had little to do with the sun.

“It’s extremely moving to see these warriors and dogs meet each other’s eyes for the first time,” Diamond said. “You watch them reborn right in front of you.”

If you or someone you know needs help and you are a veteran or military member, call the Veterans Crisis Line and the Military Crisis Line at 1-800-273- 8255. – free hotline, online chat or SMS.​

Natalie Eilbert covers mental health issues for USA TODAY NETWORK-CENTRAL WISCONSIN. She welcomes story tips and comments. You can reach her at neilb[email protected] or check out his Twitter profile at @natalie_eilbert. If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 or text “Hopeline” to the National Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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