Dogs Help Veterans Heal

ServiceDogYou can see the stickers all over Asheville. “Who rescued who?” “My dog rescued me”. Those sentiments are especially true for injured veterans of Iraq and Afganistan.

Enter Draven, Emily, Ella and Mervin. They are, respectively, a pit bull mix, a Golden/beagle, a Lab mix, and a Husky. Depending on how you look at it, they were rescued by, or rescued, Shane Cox, Chris Stewart, Mechelle Di Angelis and Danielle Winkelman, respectively.

Both dogs and people belong to Warrior Service Dogs, a group founded by Cox. You can meet them all most weekday afternoons between three and six near the picnic pavilion in Carrier Park. They are all there to help heal injuries such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). These common problems are the result, ironically, of better protection and better medical care for our troops. Injuries that once might have been fatal no longer are, but leave their victims with debilitating headaches, nightmares, flashbacks, and fear of people and public places. As De Angelis said: “Once you’ve had people tryingto kill you for a year, you get nervous going out of the house.”

Draven has been with Cox for eight years, the last four as a service dog. Cox started Warrior Service Dogs because he realized how much Draven helped him, and, therefore, how much other dogs could help other veterans. “Having service dogs is too easy an option to try that we haven’t tried,” he said.

Cox and Draven are BONDED. Cox know she can tell Draven his deepest, darkest secrets from his time in combat, and Draven will never tell a soul. And Draven can sense when Cox is having a nightmare or a flashback and give him the kiss that will bring him right back to Asheville right now.

“Mini-Golden” Emily, like Draven, was a pet before becoming a service dog. Well, officially, she’s a service dog in training until she passes her upcoming test, which rescuee Chris Stewart expects she’ll pass easily. After all, Emily has long been helping him conquer his anxiety and PTSD. She also accompanies him to his therapy group at the veteran’s hospital.

Ella, who had been abused, was given to Mechelle De Angelis by the Animal Compassion Network to foster. But the two bonded, perhaps because the dog seemed to suffer from some of the same symptoms as the veteran – particularly an aversion to people and public places. So the “fostering” became permanent. Getting out of the house to the Carrier Park outings is a victory for both of them, although it didn’t come quickly. On their first trip to the park, De Angelis said, “Ella got out of the car. Ella got into the car. Out of the car. Into the car. But it was a start.” Now, a couple of months after their first try, the two are regulars, although Ella is still somewhat shy with strangers.

Army veteran Diane Winkelman rescued Merlin from the Asheville Humane Society because she wanted a playful, high-energy companion. She got one. Merlin is seven, going on two. He is also partly responsible for his rescue lady being Founder and Director of Blue Ridge Husky Rescue.

Turning rescue dogs into service dogs is the mission of Warrior Service Dogs, and the group will be happy to help veterans choose and train the right dog for their needs. To see how to help rescue both veterans and dogs, visit www.warriorservicedogs.org.

css.php