Not alone in the battle – Two Iraq War veterans launch organization that provides PTSD service dogs for those who served

by | May 23, 2016 | Spotlight

Kenny Bass vividly remembers being hit by an IED.  The deafening blast.  The stunning force.  The swell of dust.  A young Marine Corps combat infantryman serving in the Iraq War, Kenny was conducting a counter-ambush patrol when a roadside bomb wounded him physically and mentally.  After two tours, Kenny was declared 100 percent disabled by age 23, but he would feel the effects of that blast for years to come.
“The problem comes when veterans who are trained to survive and thrive in a combat environment come home to relative safety,” Kenny said.  “Both combat and reintegration require training, but I was stuck with that kill switch on for 10 years.”
For years, Kenny struggled with PTSD, anxiety, night terrors, public places, large crowds and other aspects of daily life as Kenny and his young family grappled with normalcy.
“I was holed up in my garage on all kinds of medication for almost a decade,” Kenny said of his reintegration into civilian life.  “There were days I didn’t remember my kids’ names.
Kenny’s friend and battle buddy, Valencia resident Joshua Rivers, understood the struggle.  They had served together in Iraq, and though they dealt with it differently, they both fought through the hardship of reintegration.
“You were blown up and shot at every day,” Joshua said of his time as an infantry Marine on the front lines of the Iraq War.  “You always had something to do and someone to do it with.  Always.  But when you get back, you don’t have anything.  Your battle buddies are gone.”
Though the road has been unimaginably difficult, Kenny and Joshua are lucky compared to some.
“A lot of veterans end up drinking their lives away, or developing an emotional distance that stays with them forever,” Kenny said.
Others never have the opportunity to learn coping mechanisms, whether healthy or not, because roughly 22 veterans commit suicide a day, according to a decade-long study conducted by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.  Demonstrating the gravity of the problem, more veterans die as a result of suicide in one year than have died due to combat losses in 12 years of combat in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined, Chrissy said.
“There was no end to their pain in sight,” said Deputy Executive Director, Chrissy, who lost a relative to veteran suicide.  “So they make their own end.”
Like Kenny, many veterans who struggle with reintegration are prescribed heavy medications as their main course of treatment and rehabilitation.
“The answer I got from the VA was medication,” said Kenny, who was taking multiple medications totalling 30 pills at one point, “but the side effects of many of these medications include depression and suicidal thoughts.  My quality of life was not better.”
Kenny needed another answer.  In 2012, the VA prescribed him a PTSD service dog, with a price tag of $15,000.  Kenny reached out to friends and family for help with fundraising, Joshua included.
“I’d never heard of a service dog for PTSD,” Joshua said, “but once Kenny had (his service dog), Atlas, I could quickly see glimpses of the guy I used to know coming back.”
At the time, Joshua was looking for a charity to get involved with but hadn’t found anything that really spoke to him.  Shocked that veterans had to pay for what seemed like a life-saving service, Joshua made a suggestion.
“What do you think about doing this for other veterans?” Joshua recalls asking.
To which, Kenny replied: “There’s nothing else I’d rather do.”
In 2013, Joshua and Kenny founded The Battle Buddy Foundation; today, the non-profit provides highly trained psychiatric and mobility service dogs to veterans of all eras who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Traumatic Brain Injury, and physical limitations – at no cost.  In addition to providing service dogs, the foundation acts as a resource network, awareness program and community.
With roughly 30 dogs in the program, the foundation trains dogs for each individual’s specific needs, covering additional training, vet care, travel costs and support throughout the dog’s entire working life, usually about 7-10 years.  The cost of one dog amounts to about $25,000.
“Our goal is to provide long-term and tangible change for veterans and their families,” Kenny said.  “Our dogs are trained to perform specific tasks that mitigate a veteran’s specific disabilities.  That’s what truly sets our organization apart:  It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.”
Kenny, for example, struggled with night terrors for years, constantly reliving the IED explosion.  After a decade of insomnia, exhaustion took a serious toll on his quality of life.
“Atlas is trained to sense and interrupt my nightmares,” Kenny said.  “He’ll lick my face or lay on me, to wake me up and calm me down.”
Service dogs perform a wide range of commands, treating both psychiatric and physical concerns.  When Atlas “posts” or “blocks,” he stands on alert behind Kenny, allowing Kenny to relax knowing his back is protected.
“I struggled to go out in public,” Kenny said.  “I’d be in a conversation with people, but I’d be too focused on potential threats.”
Anxiety alerts also are common and can range from a paw on Kenny’s foot to a nudge to a noise.
“It helps with triggers.  I’ll be clenching my fists or tapping my hands on the table, and he’ll paw at my foot.  It breaks that almost flashback situation and brings you back to the here and now – it’s grounding,” Kenny said.  “Not to mention he looks at you with those big puppy eyes.”
For many veterans, learning personal triggers and how to anticipate them is a large part of coping with PTSD.  With Atlas, Kenny can relax knowing he’ll be alerted of his triggers and steered toward calm – before he loses control.
“I know he’s watching my back, and it gives me that extra buffer to relax,” Kenny said.  “It helps me stop before I react, with anger or loud talking or running.”
Over time, Kenny began to learn his triggers along with Atlas.
“Your self awareness increases, and the normal things start to feel natural again,” Kenny said.  “Through your relationship with your service dog, your battle buddy, you begin to open up that emotional side and connect again.”
Today, Kenny is no longer on medication.  He is a better father, husband and civilian because of what he has learned.  He attends large events for the foundation and shares his story with anyone who is interested.  Atlas has, assumably, saved his life.
Even through the simple act of sharing his journey, Kenny’s story helps other veterans.  With a very active Facebook presence, the foundation’s page is full of stories from other service dog recipients.  After years of being shut off emotionally, many veterans are so inspired by their dogs and their own progress that they begin to share on social media.  The result is a community and safe space where it’s ok to ask for help.
“Everyone comes away differently,” Joshua said, “and everyone has their own story.  This sets an example for those men and women who have been on the fence about asking for help.”
With such engagement from the veteran community, the foundation has branched out into a referral network, answering thousands of emails a month and connecting veterans to resources.  Sometimes, what veterans really need is to be connected to the right message.
“No one says it’s ok to be a little banged up and beaten down,” Joshua said.  “There are so many other things you can go on to be or do in your life after service.  But no one tells you that either.”
For Kenny, Altas and the foundation have turned maddening pain into purpose.
“I’m not anything special,” Kenny said.  “I struggled for a long time – just like anyone else.  I thought all that pain was just that.  But all that pain you walk away with, you can find value in the pain and use it.  We have to fix the way we handle reintegration, and who better to fix it than us?”
For more information about The Battle Buddy Foundation, please visit www.tbbf.org or www.facebook.com/battlebuddy.

photos by Joie de Vivre photographie

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