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Nights are tough for Jessica Hope, a 20-year Veteran of the U.S. Army and Army Reserves.

During the day, she draws on her skills as a social worker to cope with the trauma she experienced in the military. At night, she’s at the mercy of her unconscious mind. 

Like many trauma survivors, Hope suffers from night terrors. After she falls asleep, her body freezes, her heart races and her breath quickens. Her fingers dig into her palms, her nails cut her skin—robbing her of needed sleep and exacerbating other symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), like anxiety, irritability and poor concentration.

Hope tried medication to ease her symptoms, but it dulled all of her emotions, not just the negative ones. A social worker and mother of three, Hope needed to also be able to experience joy, happiness and hope. Her family and work life depended on it. 

It turns out that what medications and therapy couldn’t provide, a mottled mutt could. 

Two years ago, Hope came to K9s For Warriors and was paired with Scout, a shorthaired pointer with big brown eyes, a coffee-and-cream coat and an uncanny ability to lift her mood and ease her symptoms. Hope acquired the pup after applying to K9s For Warriors, which trains Service Dogs (most of whom are rescue animals) to mitigate symptoms of PTSD, from creating a physical barrier in crowded places to administering deep compression therapy. After training the dogs, K9s For Warriors hands them over to Veteran survivors of PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI) and military sexual trauma. The goal is to rescue people and animals—to, as they say, save lives “at both ends” of the leash.

When Scout passed his Service Dog test, he was matched with Hope, who underwent interviews and background and reference checks before attending an all-expenses-paid training program near her hometown near San Antonio. During the three-week program, Hope learned how to work with Scout and incorporate him into her rural home, which also houses cats, chickens and three young girls. “The dog was already trained,” explained Hope, a member of Navy Federal Credit Union. “They were just training me on how to not mess up this beautiful animal.”

A Four-Legged Miracle

Scout didn’t miss a beat. That first night, he gently awoke Hope from a night terror—a move he’s made countless times since. Today, he accompanies Hope on errands, watching her back when she’s withdrawing money at an ATM or in line at the grocery store, and keeps a close eye on her at work, which helps her coworkers understand her triggers and their effects. He even senses when Hope’s daughters have had a bad day at school and nuzzles them in the afternoon. “He’s part of our human pack,” Hope said.

Scout helps strangers, too. Much like smelling a baby or receiving a hug from a loved one, petting dogs lowers stress and boosts hormones that calm the nervous system and stimulate feelings of love and bonding, research shows—and Scout has certainly had that effect in his community. “I’ve had Veterans fall to their knees, bawling as they pet Scout, because they don’t have the benefit of loving touch,” Hope said. “It’s really powerful.”

For Hope, it’s a four-legged miracle. 

With his help, she’s able to manage her PTSD and take fewer medications, and she’s not alone. Since its founding in 2011, K9s For Warriors has paired more than 1,000 Veterans with service dogs and rescued more than 2,000 dogs. A whopping 92 percent of program graduates reduce their medications, according to a third-party survey. More than four in five (82 percent) report fewer suicidal thoughts. 

Service Dogs help people with PTSD in other ways, too, according to Mike Drafts, director of warrior training and education at K9s For Warriors. They help Veterans rebuild a sense of trust, which alleviates social isolation and loneliness. They help them resume basic routines, from getting out of bed to going outside and getting exercise. And they help them achieve longer-term goals, like reuniting with family members and going back to school. As Drafts put it, they give Veterans—who experience 50 percent  higher rates of death by suicide than the general population—something to live for.

Drafts knows of what he speaks. A disabled Veteran, he tried medications as well as inpatient, outpatient and group therapy to manage PTSD, TBI and mobility challenges. When his father passed away two years ago, he was taking so many medications that he couldn’t cry at the funeral. “I was numb,” he said. “I wasn’t even there. It was horrible.” 

Soon after, the K9s employee took part in the Warrior training he teaches Veterans nearly every day, getting paired with GiGi, a black Lab-turned-Service Dog. He has since shed eight medications and 100 pounds and is happier and healthier. “Because of her, I can’t get into that deep depression. I can’t relapse into isolation. She keeps me into a routine where I have to engage and be the best version of myself that I can be.”

A Crew of Support

Support from K9s For Warriors doesn’t end after training; dedicated K9s team members are on hand to help Veterans overcome hurdles in their way, whether it’s misunderstandings about Service Dogs or lack of awareness of rights Service Dogs have under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The dog is only part of the program’s benefits, Drafts said. The other part? The crew you get connected with.

The camaraderie Veterans develop during training is akin to that experienced during basic training, he said, and nonprofit officials offer sustained support before, during and after graduation.

About half of program participants are disabled and on limited incomes, said Drafts, a 30-year member of Navy Federal. Owning a pet, especially a Service Animal, is a major financial responsibility (but one that is also associated with better overall health and higher productivity at work).

To offset costs, Navy Federal Credit Union oversees volunteer events at its headquarters in Virginia and Florida and branches around the country during June, PTSD Awareness Month. At the events, Navy Federal team members bring in old T-shirts, cut them into strips and braid them into tug toys for Service Dogs-in-training.

“We are incredibly grateful for the ongoing support of Navy Federal to further our mission to end Veteran suicide,” said K9s For Warriors Chief Revenue Officer Lindsay Grayson. “K9s For Warriors has the privilege every day to see the impact a Service Dog has on a Veteran. With a battle buddy by their side, the Veteran returns to a life of dignity and independence. Navy Federal’s generosity and expert tug toy makers allow us to continue changing lives.”

The credit union also supports the nonprofit through philanthropic giving and welcomes Service Animals in all branches. It provides employees with eight hours of paid volunteer leave annually to encourage volunteerism and offers team members a range of health and wellness programs. Navy Federal’s employee resource groups provide spaces for employees with ties to the military community and those with diverse abilities, including those who live with PTSD and other visible and invisible differences.

Support for those in the military community, and for those experiencing PTSD, is “near and dear to my heart,” said Justina Lazarou, a military spouse who manages a Navy Federal branch in Texas. A Navy Federal Community Service Champion and dog-owner herself, Lazarou champions causes that support Veterans with PTSD, including making tug toys for Service Dogs. “This month is an especially important time to shine a light on the good work of dogs and on our gratitude for them,” she said.


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