Service dogs bringing independence to local veterans suffering from PTSD

BOSTON — According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, nearly 20% of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans will suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

“After I got out, it was still a challenge to just adjust your life to just the day-to-day things that people may take for granted,” said Tracy Claudio, a Navy veteran living in North Chelmsford. “I was diagnosed with PTSD 25 years ago, and it was very cold and challenging.”

Claudio described sleepless nights, nightmares, a fear of the dark and jumpiness whenever someone appeared at her door.

“After I came back home, it was really hard to transition because all I wanted to do was to just, I just wanted to die, I wanted to kill myself,” said Nic Von Tilius, an Army veteran living in Lowell. “I had planned so many times to not live anymore, every day. It was every day I didn’t want to live.”

Von Tilius struggled to adjust to civilian life after serving deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

He is far from the only veteran who struggled with thoughts of suicide.

Veterans are at a 50% higher risk of suicide than people who do not serve.

“It’s sad and it’s hard to even say that it’s normal, that you would hear every day, every day that someone committed suicide,” said Von Tilius. “I felt almost safer when I was deployed because I had people around me.”

Now, an untraditional new therapy is bringing relief and independence to veterans once they return home.

“It can be debilitating and very lonely, and having a service dog who can be there, who can respond to their anxiety, who can help ground them in the moment… those things are very, very important for someone to feel safe and to be able to function independently,” said Emma Riley, Intimate Partner Violence Assistance Program Coordinator and Facility Dog Handler at Boston VA.

Riley said most people think service dogs can only assist with physical disabilities, like people who are wheelchair-bound or blind.

Now, they are being used to help veterans with PTSD.

Canine Companions is a national nonprofit that provides fully trained service dogs to adults and children with disabilities at no cost to the recipient.

The group recently launched a program to pair veterans suffering from PTSD with service dogs.

Von Tilius and Claudio were some of the first veterans in Massachusetts to be paired with a service dog to assist with PTSD through Canine Companions.

“They [service dogs] are the ones who are going to be in the community with the veteran, not just in a session at an office,” Riley said. “A service dog is medical equipment, it’s like a wheelchair. It’s necessary for some of our veterans to have that independence in the community.”

Claudio said her service dog Hannon has changed her life.

“When I come home at night, I don’t have to worry about coming into a dark house. He knows which lights to turn on when I come into the house,” said Claudio. “I don’t have to worry about being snuck up on, he alerts me when someone is at the door. If I have nightmares, he wakes me up.”

Von Tilius said he would not be here today if not for his service dog Hershey.

“I’d probably be dead, I wouldn’t be alive,” said Von Tilius. “Hershey saved my life.”

Both veterans hope that by sharing their stories, they can inspire other service members to seek help and support if they too are struggling with PTSD.

“It’s out there, the help is out there,” said Von Tilius. “It may be hard in the beginning to start, but once you start, you’re not going to quit. Do it for the ones that didn’t come home. If it’s not for you, if it’s not for your family, do it for the ones who didn’t come home.”

Canine Companions provides service dogs at no cost to the recipient. They do this thanks to thousands of volunteers and thanks to critical donations. If you’d like to support the organization, click here.

“In the military, you always had someone that had your back, and now that they’re out, they have the same thing,” said Riley. “That is something that is not definable, but it is really key.”

If you are a veteran in need of help, click here for more information. For immediate assistance, call 1-800-273-8255.

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