By Mrs. Melissa K Buckley (Leonard Wood)February 21, 2014
For veterans dealing with battle scars on the inside, there is help -- in the form of a furry, four-legged, friend.
Missouri Patriot Paws provides military veterans suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Injury with trained service dogs. Most of the program's dogs are rescued from local shelters.
The process begins by pairing the veteran with a rescued dog. As a team, they train together until graduation.
Right now, the program has nine service dogs.
"I love helping veterans and saving dogs from area shelters," said Susan Hinkle, Missouri Patriot Paws coordinator. "Veterans can take their certified-service dogs anywhere under the Americans with Disabilities Act, such as movie theaters, restaurants, airplanes, busses and more."
"A service dog is a tool to be used in treatment for veterans with PTSD and TBI. It has been proven to work with counseling and medication," Hinkle said. "There are documented studies of the benefit of the human-animal bond."
Missouri Patriot Paws is a non-profit program of Mission Missouri. Hinkle said it usually takes between three to six months to train a service dog and costs about $2,700 per dog.
"Service dogs must pass a basic obedience test, an American Kennel Club and Canine Good Citizen Test, a Public Access Test and be trained to help their veteran with at least three tasks to help with their disability," Hinkle said. "Missouri Patriot Paws trains to the minimum standards of Assistance Dogs International with 110 hours in training."
"All funds raised for Missouri Patriot Paws goes to pay the dog trainers. I am a volunteer of the program," Hinkle said.
Missouri Patriot Paws PTSD service dogs are specifically trained to assist in a medical crisis, provide treatment related assistance, assist in coping with emotional overload and perform security enhancement.
John Meir is a former Soldier currently benefiting from the program.
Meir served in the Army for 24 years. He spent time in three regiments: infantry; chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear; and finally as a military police officer.
He was active duty during Desert Storm and Desert Shield, went to Bosnia twice, Kosovo twice, Iraq three times and Afghanistan twice.
"I have been fighting PTSD and TBI ever since Desert Shield and Desert Storm," Meir said. "I didn?'t want to go into the public, stayed at home mostly or went to work, didn?'t socialize at all, couldn't get good sleep due to nightmares. I alienated myself from the world and even friends and Family."
Now, Meir has a different outlook on the world -- thanks to his 7-year-old Poodle, Apollo.
"Apollo is one of the best things that has come into my life in the sense of a 'medical device,' as he has helped me far more than I can ever explain," Meir said. "He is extremely calm which helps me with my moods. He has bonded with me, and he will not let me get out of his sight. The way he has bonded with me has made him a special partner in my life," Meir said.
The dog will graduate from the Missouri Patriot Paws program next week.
"I have had Apollo for about six months now. My wife and I picked him, and then he was approved by a trainer for the program," Meir said. "When I start to get aggravated or uneasy, I am able to calm down by petting him and watching his calm, easy demeanor."
"He gives me more of a purpose. I take him outside, and I have to keep him socialized, so I make myself get out more into public areas. He gives me the confidence to go into public areas," he said of Apollo.
The Poodle is trained to stand or sit at a distance behind or in front of Meir, so people cannot crowd the former Soldier.
"When someone walks up towards my back he alerts me by either standing up, looking at the person or moving around to let me know something in my area is changing. He calms me down internally, so I am not as hyper vigilant as I was before," Meir said.
"I am happier to go to restaurants, because I feel more comfortable as people seem to give me more space than before. When we go into stores, he makes me feel more secure as I do not feel like I have to watch my back. I know he will alert me when he feels I am in trouble. He is my civilian battle buddy."
Meir said people come up to him and Apollo and talk to him, so it forces him to break out of his shell and be more sociable.
Apollo also helps Meir while he is at work. Meir is a supervisor at the Waynesville Police Department. Apollo has a couch in Meir?'s office where he sits, waiting to assist the officer.
When Meir has to go on a call, he said Apollo patiently waits in his crate for his master to return.
Apollo even stands guard while Meir is sleeping.
"He wakes me up if I start to kick or move too much in the bed due to nightmares, and he is able to help take my mind off of the dream," Meir said.
Meir said he hopes his story will help more service members with PTSD and TBI to come forward and ask for help.
"I was always afraid to state that I had an aggression problem or any internal problem at all due to how I would be looked at," Meir said.
"After I have left the military, studies have been done on internal wounds like TBI and PTSD. They are found to be just as damaging to a person's life as losing a limb -- the wounds are just not visible to the average person."
Once he made the determination to look into his internal wounds, Meir said he learned how to cope and live with the damage that his deployments have caused him and he was able to start enjoying life again.
"My Family and Apollo have been there for me and have never judged me because of the wounds I suffer from my service. Other Soldiers that suffer from PTSD and TBI need to consider the Patriot Paws route, because they do make a substantial difference in a person's life."
Meir said Apollo was rescued from a dog breeder in Missouri. The Poodle spent most of his life in a cage as a stud dog.
"As a rescue, his past life was not the best. I spoil him as much as I can now," Meir said.
Even though the team is about to graduate from Missouri Patriot Paws, that won't be the last Hinkle sees of Apollo and Meir.
Hinkle said the program is committed to staying involved with teams for at least three years.
"We want to make sure there is no life changes or problems that need to be addressed," Hinkle said.
Currently, the program has two trainers; one is a retired Army dog handler.
"(The retired Army dog handler) brings to the program the understanding and knowledge of the PTSD/TBI mind and military dog training," Hinkle said. "My hope for the future of Missouri Patriot Paws is to hire more retired Army dog handlers to help with the training of registered service dogs for Missouri."
For more information visit www.mopatriotpaws.org.