By Jessica Wehrman
WASHINGTON – A blast from a suicide bomber on a motorcycle in Afghanistan gave Joshua Endicott injuries from his head to toes.
Doctors and the medical staff at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington worked to heal most of those wounds.
But 10 months after Endicott, 20, of Columbus, was hit and ultimately evacuated from Afghanistan, the emotional scars remain.
Endicott, like many coming back from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, lives now with post-traumatic stress disorder. Previously outgoing and carefree, the Purple Heart recipient now says he’s constantly “stressed out” and always alert. Once an avid runner and swimmer, he now can do neither because of his injuries. “I don’t feel safe, ever,” he said.
For the first few months of his recovery, Endicott was assigned what the military calls a “non-medical assistant” – in this case, his brother-in-law, Jack Brock, who stayed with him as he navigated the recovery process. But in late May, Brock had to go home.
Endicott was alone.
But he has an idea of what might help him. He’d seen dogs aiding other injured veterans and had read about dogs helping victims of PTSD. Alone in Washington, he believes a companion dog might be what he needs.
“I have nothing,” Endicott said. “A companion dog would be perfect for me.”
While a number of initiatives use dogs to help service members, there is no current process to provide a dog to an individual soldier with PTSD, said Lt. Cmdr. Kathleen Watkins, deputy director for family programs in the behavioral-health division of the Office of the Surgeon General for the Army. The Army is developing a policy regarding service animals and also is involved in an overarching Defense Department policy on the use of dogs, she said. “In the course of treatment, health-care providers may on occasion facilitate contact between a service-dog nongovernmental organization and a soldier in need of a dog.”
Among those organizations is Puppies Behind Bars, which began in 1997 as an organization that uses prisoners to train service dogs. In 2006, the organization began training dogs for service members. So far, they’ve trained 34 dogs for veterans.
The organization also has trained guide dogs and dogs that sniff out explosives.
Founder Gloria Gilbert Stoga said the organization’s dogs are trained in 90 commands, including turning lights off and on, opening and closing a refrigerator and retrieving a bottle of water. But the organization made up five commands specifically for veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury to help them in public.
“They’re petrified to leave their homes,” she said of the veterans. “They’re scared there’s a sniper in the mall; they’re scared that bag on the sidewalk is an IED; they’re scared to drive because the car that comes up behind them could be an insurgent.
“Our dogs work to mitigate the fear of soldiers in public.”
One command is called “got my back.” If someone comes up behind a veteran in a public place, the dog is trained to sit behind the veteran. “They trust the dog,” she said. “If the dog behind them is calm, then the person is a normal person.”
Another command, called “clear,” helps veterans afraid to go into a dark room do so. The dog is trained to go through the door, turn on the lights, circle the room and come back to signal that the room is clear.
The organization works with prisoners in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut, but it has paired veterans with dogs in 29 states.
One of their breeders is Jennifer Stotts of Frazeysburg, in Muskingum County. Stotts has bred more than 75 Labrador retrievers for Puppies Behind Bars, including dogs for veterans with PTSD. She has been working with the organization for almost seven years.
Stotts has trained dogs for all sorts of dog shows, including the prestigious Westminster Dog Show. But one of her proudest moments was watching one of her dogs featured on the Oprah Winfrey Show. The segment tracked one of her puppies from its prison training to a veteran, and the soldier’s wife was interviewed.
Winfrey asked the wife what having the dog has meant to her. “It’s given my kids back their dad,” the woman replied.
“This is far more rewarding than any ribbon I could win at a dog show,” Stotts said.
Endicott said he thinks a dog would ease some of the persistent anxiety he feels and give him an emotional focus to alleviate the stress that is now a steady part of his life.
There’s evidence he’s right.
The U.S. Veterans Administration, and to some degree the military, has pioneered the use of dogs for psychiatric assistance, according to Ken Duckworth, medical director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. He said prescribed therapy dogs have been a relatively recent development for patients with PTSD. According to a 2008 study by the RAND Corp., one in five veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan suffers from PTSD or major depression.
Duckworth said it makes sense that animals are increasingly being used for mental-health purposes.
“Animals often become a very important part of the emotional world in what is often a positive way,” he said. “People just find the affection and uncomplicated transactions are very positive for them.”
According to Watkins, the first documented example of an animal-facilitated therapy program occurred in 1942 at Pawling Air Force Convalescent Center in New York. Dogs, Watkins said, “were encouraged as part of the treatment milieu.”
In the 1960s, Boris Levinson, a Ph.D. psychologist, used his dog as a co-therapist during individual counseling sessions. His findings were published. And in the 1970s, Drs. Sam and Elizabeth Corson initiated an animal visitation program in hospital psychiatric wards and in geriatric facilities, publishing their findings as well.
Around 2005, Walter Reed began using therapy dogs in clinics. Before that, the medical center used visiting pet therapy dogs.
The dogs in the clinics “are not specifically for use with patients who have psychiatric diagnosis or injuries, but are there to benefit all patients and families,” Watkins said.
Read more: THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH