O'Fallon Progress

VA: At least 22 veterans commit suicide every day

Lane Harvey of Mt. Vernon, a past Rotary District governor, congratulates Sam Hoekstra of Carterville and his service dog, Memphis for graduating from This Able Veteran in late April as Kevin MacDonald and his service dog, Teddy, look on. Rotary District 6510 donated $25,000 last spring to support Hoekstra and Memphis’ schooling at This Able Veteran.
Lane Harvey of Mt. Vernon, a past Rotary District governor, congratulates Sam Hoekstra of Carterville and his service dog, Memphis for graduating from This Able Veteran in late April as Kevin MacDonald and his service dog, Teddy, look on. Rotary District 6510 donated $25,000 last spring to support Hoekstra and Memphis’ schooling at This Able Veteran. mhodapp@bnd.com

At least 22 U.S. veterans do every day do what the enemy could not. They take their own lives, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

Kevin MacDonald of Vienna, Ill., almost followed the same path.

“Why I didn’t, I still don’t know why today,” said MacDonald, who served in the U.S. Army from 1981-2004.

On Saturday, MacDonald spoke at Giving Hope, the second annual Rotary District 6510 fundraiser dinner held for This Able Veteran (TAV) at the Regency Conference Center in O’Fallon. Rotary District 6510, encompasses 45 chapters in southern Illinois, including three in O’Fallon.

Giving hope

Rotary District 6510 is looking to sponsor its second service dog for the Carbondale-based not-for-profit agency, and top last year’s $25,000 donation.

On Saturday night, about 200 people attended the district’s latest fund-raising dinner for TAV, a non profit agency. The Rotary sponsored dog, Memphis, graduated two weeks ago with his new owner Sam Hoekstra of Carterville.

Founded in 2011, TAV is dedicated to helping veterans who suffer from psychological and physical injuries as a result of their service. Some veterans return with physical injuries and some with injuries less visible to the eye. The program teaches trauma recovery skills to the veteran, and provides a specially trained service dog as a working partner.

“The dog is useful, but it is not the totality of the program,” said Behesha Doan, the founder and training director for TAV and owner of K-9 Extreme.

“We feel that it takes both wings on a bird for it to fly,” she said.

Traditional training of service dogs focuses on a task.

TAV trains the dog in trauma resiliency, which then enables the veteran some emotional freedom to fly again.

TAV also teaches service dogs and veterans coping skills to help the veterans manage their PTSD symptoms.

The TAV service dogs recognize these symptoms, often before the symptoms even begin, according to Doan.

For an example, a dog can be trained to recognize when a nightmare is to begin.

“The dog will wake up their veteran before a full fledge episode ensues, Doan said.

The veteran suicide statistics are alarming,” said Lane Harvey of Mt. Vernon, a past Rotary District governor.

“(At least) every day 22 veterans commit suicide,” he said..“That’s almost one an hour, every day.”

The TVA is one way to get a handle on the problem, according to Doan.

“It’s a way to open the door to manageable post-trauma life,” she said.

TAV has graduated nearly 30 veteran and service dog teams, including MacDonald, and his current service dog, Teddy.

MacDonald uses Teddy to help him keep his balance, instead of using a cane. He said Teddy also helps him with his PTSD.

MacDonald was injured by friendly fire in 2001, just prior to 9-11. He, however, stayed in active duty for four more years.

As a young man, MacDonald said he was strong and looked forward to his post-military career.

But MacDonald said he struggles now imagining the dreams that he had as a young man, ever coming true.

MacDonald said he has also learned he is no longer a strong soldier. that he was earlier.

He said it’s also about taking the lead and serving, and taking care of your troops — responsibility.

“When you aren’t able to do this anymore, you kind of feel useless,” he said.

Shortly before, 9-11 MacDonald was injured by friendly fire during a peace-keeping mission when he, along with three other servicemen, busted into a crowd.

“Fortunately, the rest of my troops came away unscathed,” MacDonald said

MacDonald was less fortunate.

He suffered a brain and spinal surgery.

“No longer is his life ‘normal,’ he said.

Prior to getting involved with TAV about four years ago, MacDonald said he didn’t know which direction his life was headed.

But that changed for the better after he learned about This Able Veteran, while he was in VA Hospital.

He later had the opportunity to meet Doan.

A trauma survivor herself, Doan brings an uncommon insight to how a correctly trained service dog, combined with a trauma resiliency program, can make a difference in the lives of those suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries and those with co-occurring substance abuse.

Through TAV, she has developed a veteran-centric model of care that involves the veterans, their clinicians and the service dogs.

This unique model for trauma recovery not only trains dogs but also integrates them into a team of two with their veteran. The armed services teaches its soldiers responsibility. After being injured the soldier searches for responsibility — the dog fills that need.

“This model of care has proven to be effective where traditional therapies have previously failed,” Doan said.

TAV not only teaches veterans trauma recovery skills, but it also provides a specially trained service dog as a working partner.

TAV is a pioneer in this type of training, Doan said. TAV shares their methods with other professional dog trainers through their PTSD Service Dog Trainer Academy.

In order to learn more about the potential for the program, TAV partnered with Clinical Outcomes Group and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale for an analysis of the program’s efficiency. The results are due out in the fall.

Doan has been training service dogs for about the past 25 years.

Her reasons for staring the not-for-profit were threefold, she said. In addition to be a trainer for a long time, her brother was a lifer in the military. “As a trauma survivor myself, I have an uncommon insight to how a correctly trained service dog, combined with a trauma resiliency program, can make a difference in people’s lives,” she said.

How it works

Unlike other service dog organizations, which tend to teach dogs how to be service dogs and good companions, TAV trains dogs enrolled in its program are taught how to handle anxiety, nightmare interruption (a service which Doan pioneered), and a trauma resiliency program.

It takes a dog enrolled in the program about 1   1/2 years to complete the training,

The veterans are later brought to TAV, and stay for the final three weeks of training. The veterans are earlier matched up with the dogs, before the dog training starts, because each veteran’s symptoms are different.

“If we have a dog waking them before the veteran’s nightmare comes, the dog needs to be able to catch the nightmare before it begins a full-blown experience all over again. We want that dog to wake that individual up safely,” Doan said.

The breed of dog TAV uses varies. The program uses any dog breed, including Labradors, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherd, standard poodles and collies that are bread to specifically and cooperate work with people, according to Doan.

“We need dogs that are able to clues and be attentive,” she said.

The number of dogs TAV can train versus how many they can afford to train are two different things.

“We can train many more than we have to do,” Doan said.

Take April’s graduating class, for instance. There were seven Labradors who made up the class.

“Our goal is that the dog will eventually outlive its job so the veteran no longer needs a service dog,” Doan said.

In short, Doan hopes TAV will empower veterans.

Donations are needed

TAV depends on volunteers and donations from individuals and businesses.

The program receives no government support.

With ongoing support, they plan to demonstrate the healing power of the human-canine connection.

All donations are used to provide the service dogs and three weeks of training to the veterans. This includes travel, food and lodging at no charge to the veterans, Doan said.

The public can help donate to the program with money donations. People also can donate their unused hotel and airline points to This Able Veteran, Doan said.

For more information, visit www.thisabledveteran.org.

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