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thedrifter
03-05-09, 08:50 AM
Freedom Dogs Help Marines Combat PTSD

By Deanne Goodman

Freedom Dogs Help Marines Combat PTSD: Troops returning from duty in Afghanistan and Iraq are often still forced to battle emotional and physical issues. But a pilot program, called Freedom Dogs, now helps Marines reclaim normalcy in their lives through dogs.

SAN DIEGO -- Thousands of dogs are enlisted to aid U.S. troops in their service abroad, but once they return home, military men and women sometimes still yearn for the support a trained canine offers.

Freedom Dogs, a San Diego-based nonprofit, caters to that need with a program, which trains service dogs to help Marines coming home from Afghanistan and Iraq to overcome persisting medical and physical limitations.

The program offers a unique way in which more and more service dogs are now being utilized.

Sgt. Ian Welch is one of the first Marines to work with a Freedom Dog. Following his tours of duty in Iraq, the 25- year-old is still reeling from a traumatic brain injury, as well as severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD.

Welch was injured during his tour of in Iraq in 2003; he was later re-deployed with his unit, the 3rd Battalion 4th Marines Kilo Company, again in 2004, and then, one more time, in 2005.

He survived the wartime ordeals, but witnessed many of his friends die beside him. Despite his recurrent service, Welch does not consider himself a hero.

"Heroes," he said, "don't come home."

Though he does not hold himself in such high esteem, Welch says he has unfortunately seen many heroes come and go.

"I lost 12 Marines in three years; some lose 12 Marines in one day. I count myself lucky," he said.

Though now safe and settled in San Diego, Welch brought the traumas of war home with him. He says he struggles to live with PTSD every day. His brain injury, compounded with the effects of PTSD, make him forget little things along the way, and then become confused as to why he cannot remember they way he once did.

As the months dragged on, Welch became very depressed. When his new commanding officer, Capt. Catherine Harrington, first met him through the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Camp Pendelton, a Marine training base in southern California, she said she thought he was "withdrawn and dealing with some of the awful things these guys have to deal with."

Harrington says that Welch's six months spent with Freedom Dogs has made a drastic difference in his demeanor and apparent emotional state.

Welch lights up when he plays with Gunner, a black Labrador puppy he's training to be his full-time service dog. He drives an hour just to take the puppy to veterinary appointments. After a year, if Welch meets certain owner requirements, he'll get to keep Gunner for good.

In the meantime, Welch works with three other Freedom Dogs on a rotating basis. The dogs' trainer is Beth Russell, who helped start Freedom Dogs in 2004. Two years later, the Marine Corps launched a pilot program with the service dogs to see how they could help troops combat PTSD.

Russell is amazed at how much her dogs have helped Welch in such a short time.

"Sgt. Welch is so much more confident," Russell said. "He smiles and he laughs. He didn't smile when I first met him."

Harrington agrees: "It's amazing to see the life back in his face."

Welch says the Freedom Dogs help counter the effects of his PTSD by offering a simple, cuddly distraction. Anything from a loud noise to seeing a box on the side of the road can trigger his PTSD.

The dogs sense Welch's anxiety and in return, make their presence known through touch, he says.

"I'm not ducking under the table yelling, 'grenade,' but I might be thinking about it and it's that simple act of the dog putting his head on my boot that grounds me," he said.

The dogs are also always willing to listen to Welch, who says he tells them secrets and sings songs to them in the car.

The Freedom Dogs have gone through two years of specialized training to be therapy dogs for people with cognitive disorders. The dogs are also trained to help people with physical disabilities.

Welch, for example, has bad knees, so the Freedom Dogs will sometimes pick up his keys for him or grab something off a grocery store shelf, so he doesn't have to bend down and strain the ligaments.

Since working with the Freedom Dogs, Welch ventures out into public more frequently; instead of avoiding places like the movies and grocery stores, he now takes a Freedom Dog with him. Together they work on overcoming his fear of crowded environments.

But working with the dogs is not all fun and games.

"It's tough work" Welch said. Still, a little patience with his canine comrades goes a long way in helping him enjoy life again, one day at a time.

For more information on Freedom Dogs, visit FreedomDogs.org.

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Ellie