Augusta, GA (WJBF) — When soldiers return from battle, they can face countless other battles trying to re-acclimate to their home lives. For some it can be post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while for others it can be because of physical limitations. Service dogs can play a big role in helping veterans get their lives back – helping families get their loved ones back. That is why H-3 Veteran Solutions was formed. They are pairing veterans with service dogs, many of which come from shelters, and in the end both the veterans and the dogs get a new lease on life.
Brad Means: I am so grateful to have Dena and Sally from H-3 Veteran Services here today. Ladies, thank you, first of all, for what you do and for being here.
Dena Hammond: Our pleasure.
Sally Crunkleton: Thank you for having us.
Brad Means: All right, so what you do, not to oversimplify it, is use dogs in a therapeutic way to help veterans. And so, my first question is how did this whole idea even come about? And either one of you can answer it. What inspired you to say, “Hey, this mission needs to be pursued”?
Dena Hammond: Well, PTSD is personal for all of us. We come from long lines of service, we have fathers, grandfathers, husbands that are combat veterans and brought home from the combat zone more than they bargained for. And so, PTSD has touched us all personally.
Brad Means: And so, would we be primarily dealing with people who have PTSD? So, we’re talking maybe veterans coming back from the battlefield. Am I picturing this correctly?
Sally Crunkleton: Post-combat PTSD and also TBI, or traumatic brain injury, we deal with both, yes.
Brad Means: Where do you get the dogs?
Dena Hammond: We get the dogs from local animal shelters, both Columbia and Richmond County. We have established relationships with rescue agencies, specifically Dog Networking Agents, or DNA as they’re called. And Sally can tell you about the evaluations that we do and how we get them.
Brad Means: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that because they can’t just come of the shelter ready to help.
Sally Crunkleton: No.
Brad Means: What do y’all do?
Sally Crunkleton: No, we do a lot of very in-depth temperament testing to make sure that the dog’s personality and temperament is going to cut it, so no aggression, any reactivity, that’s not going to make a service dog. And then, we start with manners, learning to live in the house, the basics, sit-stay-down. And after obedience, then we start to train for the specific task that is needed. The–
Brad Means: How– I’m sorry, how long does that take to get that dog ready?
Sally Crunkleton: It depends. We can’t put a specific timeframe on it because everyone’s needs are very different. We’ve never had one veteran where their needs were exactly alike. So, someone may need help with balance and mobility, some may need help waking up from night terrors, so we can’t say in six weeks every dog is done.
Brad Means: Are these similar to the service dogs we see out and about, a dog I might see walking with someone through the airport or at a movie theater? Is this the kinda thing that you’re dealing with?
Dena Hammond: Yeah, they can be. The Americans with Disabilities Act defines a service dog as an animal that’s trained to perform a task for the individual that they cannot do for themselves. So, it can’t be a subjective, “I feel safer when my dog’s around.” Though that may be the case, to be a bonafide service dog, there has to be a specific task: pick something up, turn on a light, wake up from a nightmare, deep pressure therapy, something of that nature.
Brad Means: And I asked how you got the dogs and how they get ready to serve, what about the veterans? How are they referred to you or how do you seek them out?
Sally Crunkleton: We have a selection committee. So, veterans can go on our website and request an application packet. Once that’s filled out completely, it goes to a selection committee. It is reviewed and we have our own psychologist onboard that after the selection committee approves that, yes, this person fits the needs for a service dog, then they will go through a screening process with a psychologist and there’s home inspections, and then we move forward with the dog selection.
Brad Means: Are these veterans being helped through the dogs and in some sort of clinical setting? In other words, they don’t just say goodbye to the doctor and it’s all dogs, all the time. Are they typically getting treatment in both areas?
Sally Crunkleton: Absolutely.
Brad Means: Yeah. And what can these animals do, either one of you can answer this, that a human can’t? I mentioned that at the top of the show, but help me understand what an animal can do that perhaps someone else can’t?
Dena Hammond: Well, the thing is that when the veteran comes back from a combat zone and PTSD ensues, there’s a lot of loneliness, isolation, they don’t trust the environment that they’re in. That’s part of what drives it because the environment in combat was so tenuous. And so, the dog provides a way of having stability without judgment, because I think that war, it just doesn’t discriminate and it’s very, very ugly. And these people, they serve and they see things that you and I can never even imagine. So, you can understand that when they come home and they have to connect with a husband or a wife or a child, makes it very difficult. That animal, that service animal steps in and they sort of fill that gap. They’re constant, they don’t judge, they can trust them.
Brad Means: Mm-hmm, well, why we all love dogs, really, because of those characteristics. Sally, how long does it typically take, maybe it varies in each case, before you can see those symptoms start to go away or at least be reduced?
Sally Crunkleton: With some people, the bond happens immediately and when they get their new dog, they’re able to, within a week, go to the grocery store for the first time or maybe within a few months actually go to a movie with their children. And these things are just so emotional for all of us that people get their dad back or their mom or their sister and it’s just an amazing thing. And the dog is no longer in a shelter, so it’s a win-win for everyone involved. Sometimes it takes months; it depends on the severity of the case. But like she was saying, dogs are so forgiving and so loyal and trustworthy that the PTSD that these combat veterans have, it’s all related to interactions with humans, so that’s why the animal stepping in, it breaks that barrier.
Brad Means: Can we see our veterans depend less on medication perhaps after time with these dogs?
Dena Hammond: So, actually, one of our veterans came in follow-up with us and he said that when he came to us and initially received his dog, he was on 27 medications.
Brad Means: Goodnight.
Dena Hammond: It’s been two years and he’s on two.
Brad Means: Two, from 27.
Dena Hammond: Yes.
Brad Means: Well, that’s incredible.
Dena Hammond: Yes.
Brad Means: I was amazed at the list of things that these dogs can do, and so you can take turns telling me, and let’s just kinda give the viewers an idea, it’s not just that they walk up to the person and let them pet them and that helps them get used to life again, but they can remind them to take their medicine, they can help them with their daily routines. Tell me some of the things that these animals are trained to do, either one of y’all.
Sally Crunkleton: They can retrieve medication for people that, like you said, reminders that go off.
Brad Means: How do they do that? Do they go get the bottle of pills and bring it to ’em?
Sally Crunkleton: They actually, they can do that. And it starts, the training process, it’s a game of fetch initially and then it transitions to, “This is what you’re bringing,” and it’s usually in a medication bag ’cause we don’t wanna risk a dog popping open a pill bottle and accidentally swallowing someone’s medication. They can turn on lights, they can pick up objects for people that have back and neck injuries or mobility issues where they can’t balance; we don’t want ’em to fall over and hurt themselves if they try to bend over. Pick up keys, help them walk coordinated. We have dogs that actually can help seek out exit areas for people if they sense a panic attack going on and they need to get out of a crowded situation. Waking them up from night terrors.
Brad Means: I was gonna ask you that; how do they wake ’em up, just nudge ’em, lick ’em? How do they wake ’em up?
Sally Crunkleton: We kind of let them, some people need to be woken up more abruptly and some people prefer a gentle type, so licking, pawing, or some dogs will pounce on you. It kind of depends on the intensity of the nightmare.
Brad Means: Two more quick questions. How do veterans or their families or loved ones pay for these services? Will insurance help?
Dena Hammond: Yeah, so I think that that’s one of the things that makes H-3 Veteran Services different. We’re a completely volunteer organization and we are committed to making sure that veterans shoulder no financial responsibility in the delivery of these dogs. So, there’s no burden financially at all on the veteran when they receive a dog from us.
Brad Means: And so, people who want to help you continue to fulfill your mission and your purpose is through donations; that’s a huge help, I’m guessing.
Dena Hammond: Yes.
Sally Crunkleton: Yes sir. A hundred percent goes towards helping these veterans get their dog.
Brad Means: I tell you what, I love what you do and I’m certain, you can tell just by sitting with you, that y’all love it as well. What does it feel like when you see someone who has gone from the darkest place possible to someone who has hope again?
Dena Hammond: Well, the first veteran that we help is always gonna be what stays in your mind. And when we met him, he had difficulty speaking, he was unable to join a group setting, and so all of his work was done one-on-one. And, literally within two days, his wife came to us and she came on and asked to find us and grabbed us and held us and just hugged us and said, “Thank you for giving me my husband back.” He hadn’t sat at their dinner table for two years. So, those experiences, understanding that what it is for one person, if it’s that severe for even just one and we can help them, then we are all in; that’s what we wanna do.
Brad Means: Well, again, I cannot thank you enough. Dena Hammond, Sally Crunkleton, and the entire team at H-3 Veteran Services, thanks a lot for all you do.
Dena Hammond: Thank you for having us.
Sally Crunkleton: Thank you for having us.
Brad Means: Helping our heroes get back into the swing of things, what an amazing group at H-3 Veteran Solutions. There is their information. You see their website, you see a way to contact them via phone or email. Please do! Think about how much they need your support and think about how far your donation can go.