Operation Iraqi Freedom: Iraq. April 5, 2005. A large, improvised explosive device (IED) hits a squad. Three Iraqis are severely injured, one with an open head wound; the combat medic suffers a concussion. These injuries are the first major injuries the combat medic sees and treats, recalling, "[The] gentleman [with the open head wound] passed away."
The combat medic was now-retired Staff Sergeant Randall Dexter; these traumatic visuals and experiences would ultimately cause PTSD in the Sergeant.
Active-duty soldiers and Veterans, like Staff Sergeant Dexter, have felt the horrendous effects of service in a combat zone, often returning home with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which can be associated with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), making it difficult for them to transition into civilian life, particularly in daily tasks.
PTSD, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is "a mental health condition that's triggered by a terrifying event [where] symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event [where people] have difficulty adjusting and coping'" where often, soldiers and Veterans flash back to the war zone, with the visuals of dead bodies and their comrades who were killed or wounded; soldiers will often feel estranged from friends and family when they return home.
The Mayo Clinic continues, an estimate of one in five Veterans return from Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD. The trend in symptoms include intrusive memories, in the form of flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event, as well as upsetting dreams about the traumatic event; avoidance and emotional numbing, which includes the avoidance of thinking or talking about the event, hopelessness about the future, among avoidance of activities once enjoyed; and anxiety, such as irritability and anger, self-destructive behavior, and trouble sleeping. One major signal where the person should seek help includes self-medication, where the person will turn to alcohol or drugs to numb their feelings.
The effects of PTSD are a contributing factor to soldier suicide. One Active-duty soldier and 22 Veterans commit suicide per day (which approximates to one life taken every 65 minutes), cites Stop Soldier Suicide, a nonprofit organization which provides alternative solutions for soldiers, Veterans, and their family members, as well as changing the stigma of receiving treatment. According to the Dana Foundation, a private philanthropic organization with the commitment to advancing brain research, the rate of soldier suicide has doubled since 2004, creating a devastating epidemic, which has generated an immense need to address the issue in efforts to prevent soldier suicide.
Grek and Staff Sgt. Reese
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Kevin Reese and his military working dog Grek wait at a safe house before conducting an assault against insurgents. | Photo: |
Staff Sergeant Dexter joined the military after 9/11, believing he could change the world, "I knew what I was getting into," never anticipating the terrors of combat, changing his outlook on life. The trauma of treating such severe injuries, compounded by the passing of the gentleman, was only the beginning to his 27-month deployment; his first tour from January of 2005-January of 2006, and his second tour, March of 2007-June of 2008.
The horrors of war changed Staff Sergeant Dexter's concept of power and control, realizing there were things out of his control, and he began to lose his ability to trust people. Returning home, he no longer felt safe, feeling "safer [in Iraq with trained warriors]." Returning home from his second deployment, he felt he lost his "security blanket," his battle buddies in Iraq, the people whom shared his experiences, who were always there. It was his battle buddies who saved him from suicide, during a particularly difficult time; "everything I knew and loved was gone," events including the passing of his grandfather; "I had a rifle. I could have done it at any time."
Staff Sergeant Dexter soon felt alone as he was transferred to South Carolina, his battle buddies dispersed to different bases or left the service, and he was reluctant to meet new friends, not allowing others whom he felt did not share his experiences, into his life. Progressively, the effects of combat became apparent, such as anxiety in crowds, where Staff Sergeant Dexter turned to alcohol to function, the "only thing that would numb the anxiety" in order for him to do daily tasks, such as going to the grocery store. Staff Sergeant Dexter was terrified to sleep, as vivid nightmares invaded his mind, needing the alcohol to "pass out," becoming "my medication," something he relied on, giving him "the courage to do the things I needed to do."
To Staff Sergeant Dexter, it is difficult to be open and relay his experiences, as the person cannot fully understand or relate without experiencing it themselves. Coupled with his inability to trust, he soon became isolated, something "I did to myself." Staff Sergeant Dexter's need to regain control compounded to his isolation, as he was reluctant to leave his home, ensuring the alarm system was set, and things were locked: things he could control. The isolation would lead to depression, as prior to his experiences in Iraq, he was a social person.
His wife, Rebecca, expressed her desire to understand and help, but she couldn't, despite Staff Sergeant Dexter's attempts to open up to her; it was too difficult in reliving the horrors he witnessed during combat. Rebecca also felt isolated when it took days, even weeks, for her husband to engage or interact with her, "as if I was doing something wrong," where that isolation makes "you feel like that person, too. [It was an] isolated living."
Staff Sergeant Dexter met Rebecca in October of 2008, crediting her in changing his life, regaining routine, seeking help. However, that road was turbulent, as he felt as a soldier, the mission, his work, took priority. In September of 2010, he was transferred to Fort Irwin and the National Training Center in California; the training center portrays the virtual battlefield soldiers will face, as realistic as the terrains of Afghanistan and Iraq, transporting Staff Sergeant Dexter back to his deployment, exacerbating his PTSD; he entered an inpatient hospital for PTSD in October of 2011 for two months. Staff Sergeant Dexter was transferred to San Diego in September of 2012, where "the pieces of the puzzle [to healing] came together," with the Canine Inspired Community Re-integration (CICR) program and his partner, Ricochet, in February of 2013.
Ricochet is most known as the only dog in the world who surfs with children with special needs, people with disabilities, and Wounded Warriors as a form of therapy, also raising awareness for pervasive causes, such as anti-bullying, and the prevention of soldier suicide. Staff Sergeant Dexter felt hopeless, living with a burden he felt no one could understand; with Ricochet, "everything clicked," as there was an unspoken understanding and love; there was no pressure to express his experiences to her, something special to Staff Sergeant Dexter. Regardless of who he, and what his situation was, he was assured Ricochet was there to help, "it was a nice feeling to have." Ricochet took his focus out of the big picture, not worrying about the future, it was about the present.
As the Dana Foundation observes, animal-assisted therapy (AAT) is a helpful tool in decreasing the PTSD symptoms in wounded soldiers, and service dogs can help Veterans regain structure and regain independence. According to Judy Fridono, guardian of, and messenger for Ricochet, the six-week CICR program helps service members to reduce their PTSD symptoms with the assistance of canine therapy, where certified dogs accompany the service members to areas where large numbers of people may be found, and preparing them in having a service dog; CICR is supported by Paws'itive Teams, who provides custom trained service dogs to meet the specific needs for people with disabilities in San Diego County.
According to Karen Shultz, President of Tender Loving Canines Assistance Dogs, Inc. (TLCAD), aspiring to extended customized service dog training, a common trend among Veterans with PTSD, hyper-vigilant of sounds and people, is anxiety resulting from people in close proximity. The service dog is taught customized cues, such as "circle," where the dog will stand on one side and walk to the other side from behind, keeping people at a distance. The "block" cue signals the dog to stand in front, acting as a barrier, "cover" is similar, where the dog will stand behind as the barrier.
Staff Sergeant Dexter initially dreaded participating in the CICR program, as it forced him to leave his house, but he knew he had to make a change. "It was nerve-wracking" to enter Walmart, but Ricochet's astounding intuition allowed her to redirect Staff Sergeant Dexter from an aisle replete with people, which would cause him anxiety, according to Fridono. Ricochet would also act as a physical barrier, as Staff Sergeant Dexter could position her in front of, or behind him, away from other people. Ricochet would also stand next him, facing the opposite direction, seeing everything happening behind him; all things a battle buddy would do.
Staff Sergeant Dexter underwent various treatments (participating in AA, counseling, and group sessions), but it was his time with Ricochet which gave him what he was looking for, the ability to "take me out of myself" to focus his attention on Ricochet, nudging him to pet her when she intuitively knew he was anxious. Fridono believes they had "connected on a very deep spiritual and soulful level' probably something he hadn't felt before." Staff Sergeant Dexter also credits Fridono in his journey to heal, "When I think of Ricochet, I think of Judy as well," who took the time to help, genuinely wanting to understand "why does this type of thing happen?" yet taking no credit for all the work she and Ricochet have done, as "not a lot of people would think to fundraise for [Patrick Ivison, a quadriplegic adaptive surfer with a C4-5 spinal cord injury] who needed [physical] therapy."
The CICR program was a positive step for Staff Sergeant Dexter, "The only bad thing about the CICR program was that it was only six weeks." After their time in the CICR program, Staff Sergeant Dexter and Ricochet created the PTSD Battle Buddy Initiative, with aspirations to raise awareness of PTSD symptoms, removing the stigma associated with it, and providing support to Veterans and their families, and therefore, greatly reducing the suicide rate. As Staff Sergeant Dexter recalls, after he finished the CICR program, he entered an eight-week intensive outpatient program for PTSD, with five other members in the group. One gentleman was very isolated, in need of help, with "nothing to hold on to in his life." One night, the gentleman had a flashback in downtown San Diego, where Staff Sergeant Dexter discovered him bleeding, acting quickly to help him, and even spending the night with him in the hospital.
PTSD is a potentially debilitating anxiety disorder triggered by exposure to a traumatic experience such as an interpersonal event like physical or sexual assault, exposure to disaster or accidents, combat or witnessing a traumatic event. There are three main clusters of symptoms: firstly, those related to re‐experiencing the event... | Photo: | Ptsd, War, Post-traumatic Stress Disorder, Military, Pain, Mental Illness,
As Fridono reflects, Rebecca had texted Fridono, in hopes of seeing Ricochet. Rebecca recalls, "As soon as Ricochet saw Randy, her tail was wagging' running across the street to get to him." Staff Sergeant Dexter recounts, Ricochet had jumped into his lap and he began to reveal his experiences with PTSD, the first time he felt comfortable in talking about it. Fridono continues, "The more Ricochet helped Randy, the more I realized she could do more." Staff Sergeant Dexter knew he could use his experiences in helping others, with the message: they weren't alone. He feels fortunate to be in San Diego, an area resoundingly supportive of soldiers and Veterans, particularly in helping those coping with PTSD, as "not everyone has that opportunity."
Partners and family members of soldiers or Veterans combating PTSD strive to take the journey of healing with them. Rebecca advises to go to their appointments with them, researching PTSD in what signs to look for, highly recommending counseling, even if the person seems fine. The Mayo Clinic recommends, Veterans (and their families) should seek help if major warning signs are exhibited: sleep disturbances, such as insomnia or other sleep problems; disturbing thoughts which persist over a month; self-medication; and flashbacks, or reliving the traumatic event for minutes, even days, with a reluctance to think or speak of the event. Rebecca continues, most importantly, giving the person space is imperative, not constantly asking, "What's wrong?" which creates pressure and aggravation. A key to healing from PTSD is healing as a team; the person is never alone.
Soldier suicide is prevalent, many times originating from PTSD. As Fridono observes, we must all help to raise awareness to reach out to this population, as "they fought for us, now it's our time to fight for them." Staff Sergeant Dexter advises for Veterans combating PTSD and/or TBI, who have mood swings, troubles at work, or suicidal thoughts, to seek help. To Staff Sergeant Dexter, PTSD is not necessarily a curse, but a gift, illustrating that people with PTSD have the ability to be successful, accomplishing great things; they are some of "the greatest people I ever met," among those who work tirelessly to create more awareness in, and negating the stigma of, PTSD. Stop Soldier Suicide Chief Marketing Officer, Laura Black, concurs, "The people who have fought for our country deserve more from us than to be shamed, shunned and forgotten."
Staff Sergeant Dexter continues, "If you're suffering, or know anyone who is suffering, get as much education as you can. See what sparks that fire to make you go out," as PTSD does not signal the end. The Dexters now communicate, rather than yelling and screaming. Rebecca now has a better idea of how, and what she could do, to help her husband, "9 out of 10 times, I give him his space;" he can decompress, and return within 10-20 minutes, compared to the few days for the PTSD to subside. Staff Sergeant Dexter has had the opportunity to surf with Ricochet, "It was mind blowing' something I'll never forget." Ricochet raised $10,000 in order for Staff Sergeant Dexter to receive his service dog, who is expected to join him in approximately nine months.
These active-duty soldiers and Veterans are our husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, sons, daughters. PTSD is not an ambiguous entity, it has faces, it has souls. As PTSD can be a contributing factor to soldier suicide, we must work to combat it, as well as acknowledging the mammoth problem of soldier suicide. Rick Yount, Executive Director of Warrior Canine Connection (WCC), a program where a service member or Veteran with PTSD trains a service dog for a fellow Veteran, healing through their "core value of helping other service members," observes, "We have members returning to every community who need help." A key to finding solutions include stopping the stigma behind mental health issues, encouraging people to seek help, ensuring they know their battle is never fought alone.
"The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step."'Lao Tzu, Founder of Taoism
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