Every day in the United States, approximately 20 veterans take their own lives. I could easily have been one of them.
Between the Marine Corps and Army, I had almost 17 years in the military. I was officially diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2012, long after two deployments in Iraq — one in 2004 and one in 2009, but I didn’t think there was anything wrong with me.
Like most veterans with PTSD, I self-medicated. That means I drank way too much. Way more than I ever should have. Drinking is legal, so that’s the route I took.
At one point, I was on 11 prescription medications per day. They weren’t doing any good; if anything, they were making things worse. When one drug didn’t work, they upped the dose. When that didn’t work, they prescribed another one. And if that one had side effects, there was another drug to reduce them. They made me cloudy I couldn’t focus on anything. I felt like I was walking around in a haze all the time.
And when I wasn’t hazy, I had a hair-trigger temper and was a bitter, hateful person. My temper really got the best of me. I was never physically violent with my wife and kids, but I was real quick to yell and scream. I’d cuss everybody out. My kids were walking on eggshells. My wife had threatened divorce, and that got my attention. At my lowest point, I was contemplating suicide.
So you might wonder: Why am I still here? What saved me wasn’t prescription No. 12. It was my dog, Sophia.
I knew I needed help, and my wife knew better than I did. She had seen what a service dog can do from a hospital stay where she had seen a well-trained dog helping to calm down a very nervous veteran. She researched it, and we got in touch with a local dog trainer, Mary Peter, who we later learned was a nationally known K9 expert. She was also aware of the difficulties that veterans with PTSD experience and how service dogs help them 24/7.
With extreme stress and apprehension, I got started with Sophia in Mary’s training program at K9 Partners for Patriots (k9partnersforpatriots.com). Or to be more accurate, my wife practically dragged me there before I could summon the nerve to go in on my own.
I had been in the program for only a little while before I had what could have been my own life-ending moment. But instead, Sophia followed what she had been taught and came up to me with a tennis ball in her mouth and practically demanded my attention. She seemed insistent. I don’t know where she got it from. It made me realize that what I was considering was a permanent "solution" to a temporary problem.
I’m proud to tell you that 235 veterans have since followed the same path I took, and we’re deeply grateful for our second chance at life.
Don’t get me wrong. I still have my issues. I still have nightmares. But that’s what Sophia’s for. I can rest assured that going to sleep, if I start freaking out in the middle of the night, she’s going to come wake me up. And that way my wife doesn’t have to do it.
P.S. I only take two pills now, for arthritis.
Ron Flaville, a veteran of both the Marine Corps and the Army, is chief operating officer and a veteran liaison with K9 Partners for Patriots, a Brooksville-based nonprofit dedicated to helping veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma.