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Four-Legged Friends Transform Maine Veterans' Lives
11/13/2013   Reported By: Tom Porter

Veterans Day may be behind us now, but for many vets bearing the physical and emotional scars of service, life continues to be a day-to-day struggle. But the lives of some injured veterans have been transformed, thanks to the help of a pair of four-legged friends. Tom Porter has more.

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Veteran Russell May, with his black Lab, Joe.

Russell May instructs his four-year-old black Lab, Joe, to fetch some medicine for him from the fridge. Partially disabled in an accident, May's own movement is limited. But with an adapted door handle, Joe can easily manage the task.

"Good boy," May says.

For the past two-and-a-half years, Joe has been living with May at his home in southwest Maine. He's a service dog specially trained to assist disabled vets. "It's been wonderful, I tell you the dog is as smart as can be," May says. "He likes to eat though."

Maybe that's why he's so good at opening the fridge. Joe can handle other tasks as well. "He can also help me pick up things off the ground, like coins, credit cards, keys," May says.

Turning light switches on and off is another specialty. "There it goes - he turned the outside light on," May says. "Good boy."

Russell May broke his back in an accident while serving as an Airforce mechanic in the Middle East during operation Desert Storm in 1991. While he's able to walk and has use of his limbs, he is often unsteady on his feet.
Having Joe next to him helps him remain stable.

Apart from his physical injuries, May - who's 45 - has also struggled with depression and post-traumatic stress. "It was difficult because I didn't know why I was always upset, why I was always - couldn't sleep, angry all the time," May says. "You don't feel like a normal person. You feel sort of worthless."

Having Joe's companionship has helped him cope with these emotions. Before getting Joe, May says he was hospitalized seven times for depression. Since he got Joe, he hasn't been back.

"I can't tell - you my life has changed so much," he says. "My wife will tell you - she says it's just crazy how much changed since I've gotten him."

Dogs like Joe take a lot of training. "Every one of them is incredible," says Dr. Ira Kaplan, a veterinarian with NEADS, a non-profit that provides service dogs for deaf and disabled Americans.

NEADS runs a program called Canines for Combat Vets, which provided Russell May with his black Lab, Joe, and which helps out dozens of veterans like him across the country. Each dog costs up to $20,000 to train, but for the veterans, there's no charge.

"These dogs are trained over a year-and-a-half period of time," Kaplan says. "I think everyone appreciates how much work it takes just to teach their own dog how to sit, so they can imagine how it is to train a dog to do some 50-some odd tasks. But I assure you that it's not a random event. These are pure-bred dogs, usually Labradors, and they were bred for this purpose."

Rich Brewer and AnkaNot all veterans' service dogs are pure bred Labs, however. In fact, some have no pedigree at all - take Anka for instance. She's a mutt. And she's also a rescue dog.

Richard Brewer (right, with Anka) is a decorated former Marine. He and Anka - a two-year-old black Lab-English bulldog cross - are inseparable. Brewer, who's now 50, has struggled with PTSD and traumatic brain injury for years. He says it's the result of being caught in a terrorist bomb blast in Beirut, Lebanon in 1984. At the time, Brewer was serving with a small Marine Corps detachment at the U.S. Embassy.

He says he tried to bottle up his demons and carry on as normal - until one day, it all got to be too much. "Four years ago I decided I would end my life," Brewer says. "And I sat in my basement with my gun in my mouth, and I couldn't decide whether I wanted to shoot myself in the mouth or in the temple."

During those seconds of indecision, Brewer decided he wanted to live. And that meant coming to grips with his PTSD. Today he runs One Warrior Won, a Portland-based non-profit that provides education and support for veterans and families affected by PTSD.

A big part of the program is raising money to provide therapy dogs - all of them rescues. He currently has about a dozen canines placed throughout the country, with several more in the pipeline. The dogs are trained to be sensitive to a person's stress levels, something that can help veterans cope with PTSD.

"Many recipients report being able to decrease their anxiety medications because they're getting a calming effect from the dog, versus a pharmaceutical drug," Brewer says.

Brewer says Anka's helped him become less reliant on medication. "She sleeps with me, sleeps next to my body. When she hears the increased breathing of a nightmare, or the increased temperature of my body, she will wake me up to try to break the cycle of nightmares."

Anka also helps Brewer outside the home when he's dealing with potentially stressful situations - shopping for groceries for example. "Normally I'm scanning constantly, looking at 6,000 things that could or could not go wrong in a grocery store or Walmart or wherever," he says.

Instead of focusing on all that, Brewer focuses on Anka, and he finds his anxiety goes away.

Photos:  Tom Porter


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