Every 59 seconds an American veteran commits suicide.
More than 300,000 soldiers suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, which brings on severe anxiety and depression, sleeplessness and often, alcohol and drug abuse.
Because they are so damaged on the inside, many soldiers are emotionally shut down, unable to express love toward their spouses and children. They frequently watch their families fall apart.
When that happens they experience even more pain and isolation.
Someone somewhere remembered how soothing a dog can be to a human heart, no matter how badly broken that heart might be. Add the fact that more than 2 million shelter dogs are euthanized each year and a new mission began – training shelter dogs to be service canines for veterans with PTSD.
The dogs can be trained to signal the onset of a seizure or to remind veterans to take their medications. For veterans in wheelchairs, the dogs can be trained to bring items to them. Those who live in isolation find themselves going out to walk their dog. Because the veterans also participate in the training and praising of the dog, they emotionally open up by petting the dogs and offering positive words.
Many veterans with service dogs report that for the first time in months or even years, they can sleep through the night. With a naturally alert dog next to their beds, they feel safe.
When Christina Smith read about this new approach to healing veterans, she was immediately mesmerized. Then she discovered that Indiana does not provide an organization like this and that some organizations in other states charge veterans upward of $20,000 for a trained dog. She was already aware that many veterans with PTSD live on disability. Having the funds for dog food and grooming, treats and veterinarian visits can be difficult for them to find in their budgets. Affording to buy a service dog at that price was just not possible.
“I starting thinking that someone in Indiana should offer the program but make sure the dogs were free,” Smith said from her Downtown Beech Grove office. “And then the wheels just started turning.”
She did more research and a lot more late-night thinking.
“Then I decided that yes, this program could be done here,” Smith said.
The fact that she had no experience in grant writing or fundraising did not stop her. She knew she had enough heart to make up for all those other things.
“I sat my husband down and told him what I wanted to do,” she said with a grin. “We pulled our savings out of the bank.”
Naysayers who pointed out why they didn’t think the idea would work did not sway her at all, Smith said.
“I just said, ‘I have the passion. God is gonna bring me the people I need to start this. And that is exactly what He has done.’ ”
Last Feb. 8, Smith’s dream, K9s 4 Dogtags, was officially launched.
With her heart and passion backed by unstoppable determination, “It has all taken off like wildfire.”
A well-known PTSD canine trainer is training Smith at no cost to identify suitable training prospects in shelters and to begin the training process. A professional who specializes in writing grants to help veterans is volunteering her time to get some grant money in the door.
Smith and her volunteers are working diligently to honor a waiting list of Hoosier veterans who desperately need these specially trained best friends.
Smith is looking ahead and dreaming that someone will donate a building large enough for her to keep the dogs right there, within a few steps of her desk. That way, it is convenient and stress-free for veterans to work with their dogs.
“I need these veterans just as much as they need us,” said Smith, whose late father served in the Air Force. “I’ve been blessed every step of the way.”