The Herald Bulletin

August 3, 2013

Battle buddies

Service dog helps veteran with PTSD

By Nancy R. Elliott
The Herald Bulletin

PENDLETON, Ind. —

Fourth of July fireworks were not a light-hearted summer activity for Chris Brenneman.

Going to the store or being in a crowd were almost unthinkable.

Even going to sleep could not be counted on for rest — because it often led to violent nightmares.

“I woke up swinging,” Brenneman said.

Brenneman, 43, served in the Army from 1989 to 1996. After being medically discharged, he eventually came to understand – the hard way – that he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. After a long road back, Brenneman was able to enjoy the once-dreaded fireworks this summer with his family for the first time in years. He's got a Labradoodle named Reubin firmly at his side to help him along that road.

Now, Brenneman is stepping up to help educate others and to help them find their way out of the labyrinth of PTSD.

Inside the PTSD box

While everyone knows what’s it’s like to feel stressed after a traumatic event, persons who suffer with PTSD may face a debilitating struggle.

After suffering the trauma of combat, or rape, or a disaster, a person can be stuck in a box filled with nightmares or flashbacks. They may be unable to handle crowds or drive a car. Inability to concentrate or sleep, irritability and anger are part of the mix. It’s a dangerous world to people suffering from PTSD, and they live warily in a place in which they can feel increasingly isolated, depressed or angry.

“They go in a box,” said Brenneman’s wife, Melissa. She knows because she witnessed it up close and personal.

“It’s a major problem. It’s very tenacious,” said licensed clinical psychologist Dr. David Tarr, recently retired as coordinator of the PTSD clinical team at the Richard L. Roudebush Veterans Administration Medical Center in Indianapolis. At the same time, Tarr said, the reaction is basically a normal response. He described the main mechanism at work in PTSD as avoidance.

“It’s normal to want to avoid something life-threatening, but it becomes problematic when it becomes generalizable,” said Tarr.

Although PTSD can happen to anyone, the high incidence among veterans is not surprising. They have faced life-threatening experiences, and may have seen truly horrible things.

The statistics are troubling.

According to the United States Department of Veterans Affairs, an average of 22 veterans commit suicide each day. It’s entirely possible that PTSD is a factor in that stark number. According to the VA, 30 percent of Vietnam veterans suffer from its symptoms. The incidence is between 11 percent and 20 percent for veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. And 10 out of a 100 veterans of the Gulf War experience PTSD.

Anderson veteran and DAV commander Larry Peeples volunteered at the VA office for two and a half years. He has drawn his own conclusion.

“Almost every veteran has some form of PTSD. It could be from combat or something that happened stateside – it’s any traumatic event. Unfortunately when folks are getting out of the military, they say they’re dealing with it, but they’re not.”

Climbing out of the box

Brenneman’s own climb out of the PTSD box has been long and challenging. In 2003, things started falling apart for him.

“I was coming home from work. I couldn’t feel my legs,” said Brenneman. A numbing neuropathy in his legs marked the beginning of a downward slide. “I pretty much wasted my life away,” the veteran said. His family stood by him, but not without difficulty.

“One day, I woke up and said I don’t want to do this anymore,” said Brenneman. “I kind of put myself through detox.”

With the support of Melissa and his kids, he started walking every day, eating a regular diet, tweaking his meds and beginning to receive counseling. After doing research, he figured out that a dog trained for his PTSD would be a real benefit.

Today, Brenneman's trained service dog, Reubin, accompanies him everywhere. It makes all the difference for Brenneman’s ability to be part of the world again.

“His PTSD was running at 100 percent, running on all cylinders before he got the dog,” said Peeples. Now that he has Reubin, Brenneman’s temper and demeanor have changed, Peeples said.

“When the dog’s working, when Chris is nervous, that dog will get in between Chris and another person,” said Peeples. “It’s like he’s got his battle buddy on his left and right.”

A service dog has special training that allows it to assist people with disabilities. The dog wears a vest and carries a document that certifies it as a service dog. The vest also cautions others not to pet the dog, however tempting that may be. The dog is on the job when the vest is worn, and can accompany the owner wherever the public has access.

Changing one's life

Fran Morford in Tipp City, Ohio, trains service dogs, one of which is Reubin.

“I train them to detect nervousness and do something to stop it,” said Morford. That might be something as a little reassuring nudge with a nose. “It’s a trigger to interrupt anxiety.”

The dog rouses its owner from nightmares. When they are out and about, the dog will circle on command so no one can come too close.In addition to protection behaviors, the dog may be trained to retrieve medicines or get the phone.

It’s not a short or a cheap process. Training for service dogs runs the gamut, averaging between $5,000 to $12,000 for a puppy, although Morford noted there are trainers that will cost a customer $20,000. Brenneman, with help from Morford and others, did fund raising to enable him to acquire Reubin.

For Joseph Jacobs, 54, his dog is worth its weight in gold.Jacobs served as a staff sergeant for nine and a half years in the Air Force. Completely blind in his left eye, and with 100 percent service-connected PTSD, Jacobs was able to acquire a puppy to be trained as a service dog with the help of the Dayton VA Hospital’s Freedom Center and Semper Fi.

“She’s changed my whole life. She’s the difference between, basically, life or death,” said Jacobs, who lives on base at Wright Patterson with his wife, Ann. “These dogs are a real blessing.”

Not only does Abbie — a young purebred AKC registered saddleback German shepherd — alert Jacobs when people approach him from behind or from the side, she helps him get through the night.

“I got terrible nightmares, the same two every night of my life. They’re always waiting for me,” said Jacobs of his terrifying dreams. Abbie is there now and she nuzzles Jacobs awake. She also retrieves his medication.

“It’s changed my whole life,” said Jacobs. Before, he said, “I never wanted to leave the house or really communicate with people.” Now, Jacobs, said, “She’s given me a lot of confidence. ... It’s allowed me to go outside, to interact with other people.”

Brenneman is now on a mission to educate people about PTSD, and to assist other veterans in acquiring dogs that can help them. He is currently working to set up a nonprofit organization, or to operate as an arm of nonprofit The Path Home, with the objective of getting trained service dogs to the vets who need them without a lengthy wait. Brenneman has already placed one dog, and last week picked up two more puppies to be placed with a reputable trainer.

Brenneman said that currently there is no VA benefit to cover the service dogs for PTSD patients, so fundraising is the name of the game. As he seeks to cement his nonprofit status, he’s already hard at work on fundraising ideas. You can bet he has his buddy at his side.

Brenneman can be reached at (765) 639-5458, or email him at brennemanc@comcast.net.

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