By Carrie E. David (SMDC/ARSTRAT)November 5, 2015
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Alabama -- Most days he can be seen entering the building looking proud with his head held high. He does not speak, but acknowledges those he passes quietly with his eyes. Occasionally someone walks up to him to say hello, but he will not engage. Instead he turns to his companion, James Joyner, asking permission.
Joyner, a teleconference production specialist for the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command/Army Forces Strategic Command, gives his companion the OK with a nod of his head. His companion, a 3-year-old black Labrador named Chip, is a service animal that Joyner received from his daughter in April 2012.
"After I returned home from Afghanistan in 2011, I had to undergo several surgeries," Joyner said. "After a considerable amount of recovery time and counseling, I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. I was basically an introvert, and I wouldn't go anywhere unless I had to."
That's when Joyner's daughter Taylor decided to get a dog for her dad to train for duck hunting. Joyner named him Chip in honor of his company commander, Capt. Waid "Chip" Ramsey, 20th Special Forces Group, who was killed in action Aug. 4, 2011. Ramsey was from Huntsville and is buried at Maple Hill Cemetery.
With everything Joyner was dealing with he had a difficult time readjusting to being home.
"I would stay in bed all day until it was time for my wife to get home from work, mainly because I knew it made her feel bad to find me in bed," Joyner said. "I was mad all the time, and I didn't understand why. All I really wanted to do was to go back overseas because that seemed to me the only place I could feel 'normal' again.
"I felt kind of numb, and didn't care if I was around anyone else except for Chip," Joyner said.
Joyner, along with his therapist, began to see Chip as the one constant holding him together.
"It was this realization that prompted my therapist to recommend that a service dog might be part of a solution to help me re-engage in life," Joyner said. "I had already invested my heart and soul into loving Chip, and I knew the only way this would help was if Chip was certified as my service animal."
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act website, service animals are defined as "dogs that are individually trained to do work or perform tasks for people with disabilities."
To get Chip certified as a service animal, Joyner used the organization Train a Dog Save a Warrior, or TADSAW, based in San Antonio, Texas.
TADSAW provides for the training of a Medical Alert Service dog, as designated by the Americans with Disabilities Act guidelines, for any wounded warrior, active duty or veteran, surviving with PTSD, military sexual trauma, or traumatic brain injury in order to restore and improve the warrior's quality of life with a canine 'Battle Buddy.'
Joyner connected with local dog trainer Sara Astle with Praise-Treat-Release in the summer of 2013 to begin training sessions, which lasted an hour each week for about six months. Training consisted of obedience and public access training such as how to behave in restaurants, blocking -- so people do not crowd in too close, sitting at alert posture, and alerting if someone gets too close.
"I started focusing more and more on Chip and his training, and that in turn got me out into the world and helped me to re-engage again," Joyner said. "I started feeling more confident and going places that I didn't before he went with me, and if I was facing a challenge, he was there to help me through it."
TADSAW trains the veteran's service dog at no charge to the veteran. Once training is completed and the American Kennel Club's Canine Good Citizenship classification is awarded to the team, the dog begins intensive training to meet the specific needs of the warrior. Once this is complete, the dog will be eligible for service dog designation.
Joyner is also training a second dog to become a service animal for a wounded warrior he knows. Scout, an 18-month-old German Shepard that Joyner got in June 2014, began his formal training in September. Scout also accompanies Joyner to work periodically.
"Typically they start the service dog training at about 2 years old because that's when the puppy in them is pretty much gone," Joyner said.
According to TADSAW's website, dogs help with emotional regulation for warriors with PTSD. Once these service dogs are trained, they have the ability to decrease isolation of the veteran, decrease the needs for many medications, decrease anxiety and panic attacks when in crowded public places, and awaken them from nightmares or flashbacks.
"There are many good organizations that have caring people who want to help. I encourage service members who may be having issues readjusting to get help through counseling and then determine if a service animal might be of assistance," Joyner said. "It is a lot of work to train and maintain a service dog, and it's a responsibility not to be taken lightly. The benefits though are amazing."
Joyner joined USASMDC/ARSTRAT in July 2012 as part of the Community Based Warrior Transition Unit.