Service Dogs: Helping Some Veterans Cope with PTSD

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Service Dogs for PTSD

Photo via Pixabay by Skeeze

Soldiers returning from deployment sometimes bring the trauma of war home with them. Being injured themselves or witnessing others injured or dying, can have lasting physical and emotional effects on our military men and women. Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, can surface immediately or take years to appear. These symptoms can include sleeplessness, recurring nightmares or memories, anger, fear, feeling numb, and suicidal thoughts. These symptoms can be alleviated with medications and/or by the use of service dogs.

Service Dogs for Veterans and What They Do

A service dog is one that is trained to specifically perform tasks for the benefit of an individual with a physical, mental, sensory, psychiatric, or intellectual disability. Service dogs meant specifically for PTSD therapy, provide many benefits to their veteran companions. These dogs provide emotional support, unconditional love, and a partner that has the veteran’s back. Panic attacks, flashbacks, depression, and stress subside. Many vets get better sleep knowing their dog is standing watch through the night for them.

Taking an active role in training and giving the dog positive feedback can help the veteran have purpose and goals. They see that they are having a positive impact and receiving unconditional love from the dog in return. The dog can also be the veteran’s reason to move around, get some exercise, or leave the house.

Bonding with the dogs has been found to have biological effects elevating levels of oxytocin, which helps overcome paranoia, improves trust, and other important social abilities to alleviate some PTSD symptoms. When the dogs help vets feel safe and protected, anxiety levels, feelings of depression, drug use, violence, and suicidal thoughts decrease.

Service dogs can also reduce medical and psychiatric costs when used as an alternative to drug therapy. Reducing bills will reduce stress on the veteran and their family.

Impact of Service Dogs on Veterans with PTSD

These dogs offer non-stop unconditional love. When military personnel return to civilian life adjustment can be difficult, and sometimes the skills that they have acquired in the field are not the skills they can put toward a career back home. A dog will show them the same respect no matter what job they do, and that can be extremely comforting.

Service dogs can also foster a feeling of safety and trust in veterans. After going through particular experiences overseas, it may be difficult for veterans to trust their environment and feel completely safe. Dogs can offer a stable routine, be vigilant through the night (so the vet doesn’t have to), and be ever faithful and trustworthy.

Veterans sometimes have difficulty with relationships after departing the military because they are accustomed to giving and receiving orders. Dogs respond well to authority and don’t mind taking orders. The flip side is that by taking care of the dog’s needs, the veteran can also get used to recognizing and responding to the needs of others.

Service Dogs are also protective. They will be by the veteran’s side whenever needed and have their back like their buddies did on the battlefield. They will provide security and calm without judgment. The dog will not mind if you’ve had a bad day and be there to help heal emotional wounds. For this reason, PTSD service dogs are also a great help to veterans suffering from substance abuse disorders.

In an article by Mark Thompson called “What a Dog Can Do for PTSD”, an Army vet named Luis Carlos Montalvan was quoted as saying, “But for all veterans, I think, the companionship and unwavering support mean the most. So many veterans are isolated and withdrawn when they return. A dog is a way to reconnect, without fear of judgment or misunderstanding.

Check out the Department of Veteran’s Affairs for information on the VA’s service dog program by CLICKING HERE.

Here are a few of the dozens of programs to help if you are a vet or know one who could benefit from a service dog:


Suggestions for Veterans to Maintain a Stress- and Relapse-Free New Year

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The holiday season and New Year’s bring many stressful situations that can be difficult to handle, especially for veterans who are recovering addicts or those suffering from another mental health disorder.

stress free holiday for VeteransOld triggers, family encounters, large parties, or loneliness can be enough to push a veteran with an addiction toward a relapse. With a healthy game plan, you can get through the holiday season with your sobriety intact and make it a positive experience. The first step is to avoid situations which may increase stress to insure that you can enjoy the holidays with friends and family. But of course, this time of year that can be easier said than done. Whether you are trying to avoid family conflict or struggling with substance abuse, veterans may benefit from these simple suggestions:

One Day at a Time for A Stress Free Holiday 

Focus on today when you wake up each morning and how you want to stay sober. Think about what types of environments you need to navigate and make plans to handle those specific situations. Tell yourself that you can resist any temptations and will stay sober.

Start by taking care of your body, eating regular healthy meals, and getting in exercise whenever possible. This will keep your body’s blood sugar regulated, boost mood and confidence, help you avoid irritability, and resist impulses.

Have realistic expectations for the holidays. Expecting everything to run perfectly can set you up for an emotional let down. You can only control yourself, so focus on maintaining your sobriety when confronted with hostile or emotional situations.

Family Events and Parties

Attending family get-togethers and holiday parties can be stressful. Know which situations or people might set off your triggers and avoid them. Arrive early so that you can leave earlier, if needed. Drive yourself if you might need an easy way to leave when you want to. Time spent with people that do not respect your boundaries or elicit temptation should be limited or avoided altogether depending on your level of recovery.

Holiday food and drinks may have unwanted alcohol in their recipes. If you’re a recovering alcoholic, being handed drinks or desserts with alcohol in them could trigger relapse. Make your own snacks and drinks to bring with you to parties. Having your own preferred drink or snack in hand will help avoid the possibility of being handed things you will need to decline.

Have a few simple responses ready for awkward questions from relatives regarding your recovery. Do not feel the need to go into long explanations, or to answer every single question. Change the subject or let them know that you have some other things to do.

Help plan activities instead of just sitting around and drinking. Suggest some board games, sporting events, holiday movies, or building a snowman. Keeping yourself busy will nix cravings, alleviate stress, and help you steal some joy from the holidays.

Handling Stress or Cravings

When stress and cravings start to creep up on you, take a minute to remind yourself why sobriety is better and healthier for you. Recognize possible triggers and move to a different spot or find someone you trust to strike up a conversation with. You can also find someone to help with tasks that they need done, or find a game or activity to do.

Support systems are especially helpful and important during this time of year. Call a trusted friend, family member, or sponsor to talk with when feeling stressed. Attending extra AA or NA meetings during the holidays can give you extra confidence to get through the holiday season. Plan ahead to find meetings even if you will be in another city for the holidays.

Give Back to Others

Many just like you are battling temptations of relapse during this time of year. Make an effort to reach out and help other recovering addicts by attending parties with them to further their sobriety. Reaching out to others during the holidays can have a healing effect on you just as much as them. It can make you more confident in your own sobriety.

Selfless acts remind you of the things for which you can be grateful. Positive interactions will bring love and joy back into your life, and remind you that you can successfully avoid relapse and have a joyful holiday season.

Constance enjoys sharing stories of hope with those feeling lost, and encourages them to believe that there is a healthy, fulfilling life on the other side of whatever path they’re currently traveling.

Photo by BookBabe


Veteran Treatment Courts and MTA

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Several years ago, I had the opportunity to meet with a wonderful Judge in Syracuse who had presided over countless cases involving Veterans that were administered under the guidelines of the Veteran Treatment Court or “Vet Court.”

SFTT and Razoo Support Veterans

For those unfamiliar with Vet Courts, please find below a brief summary from SFTT’s article entitled “Veteran Treatment Courts and PTSD“:

A byproduct of the 1995 Crime Bill, the Veterans Treatment Court (Vets Court for short) is a way for Veterans facing jail time to avoid incarceration. If they accept, they are assigned to a mentoring Veteran and must remain drug-free for two years, obtain a high school diploma and have a steady job at the end  of the probation period. This may seem like a good deal, but the path to recover their lives is difficult and fraught with temptation, particularly for those Veterans with PTSD.

In effect, the Vet Court allows Veterans faced with incarceration the opportunity to reclaim their life under the tutelage of another Veteran.  In the case of Syracuse, Veterans from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq could often lean on a Vet from Vietnam.  CLICK HERE for a directory of Vet Courts across the United States.

Lest you suspect that the judicial system had run amok, Drug Treatment courts reduced the level of recidivism by almost two-thirds.   In effect, this novel approach to rehabilitation actually cut down on repeat offenders and helped many brave Veterans cope from the traumas of their military experience. It is nice to see such bipartisan support for this initiative.

While the focus of SFTT has been on helping “at-risk” warriors with PTSD get help, we were surprised at the policies of the Department of Veterans Affairs (the “VA”) which VA “has very strict rules on issuing prescription medication to Veterans with documented substance abuse problems. In other words, it may be difficult for Veterans to receive proper treatment for PTSD if substance abuse and PTSD are treated as mutually exclusive problems. This clearly introduces a level of difficulty for the VA in providing the type of comprehensive rehabilitation treatment these Vets deserve.”

While the VA continues to be hamstrung by many of its archaic policies and procedures to deal with PTSD, it is wonderful to see that some local Drug Treatment Courts are taking matters into their own hands.

For instance, the Pierce County Drug Court is incorporating medication-assisted treatment into their court-directed rehabilitation programs

A recent news article from Washington state highlights the outstanding work of the Pierce County Drug Court, one of the longest-standing drug courts in the country, and its effort to effectively incorporate MAT into their program. The court is seeing remarkable success for those participants for whom medication—such as naltrexone, methadone, or buprenorphine—is deemed medically appropriate.

While it is difficult to determine at this stage whether these programs will be effective, it is evident that local communities – aided by a progressive judicial system – is working to curb addiction and help Veterans reclaim their lives.

The Pierce County Drug Court is to be applauded and SFTT hopes that other Drug Treatment Courts will adopt similar approaches to help Veterans cope with substance abuse.


Treating Warriors with PTSD

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Last weekend, I had the privilege of visiting Warriors Salute in Rochester, NY which has an innovative and expanding program to treat veterans of our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan who suffer from PTSD.   I was fortunate to attend a training seminar hosted by Dr. Henry Grayson, Ph. D., for the clinical staff of Warriors Salute.  Dr. Grayson is the eminent psychologist who founded and directed the National Institute for the Psychotherapies in New York City and the author of Use Your Body to Heal Your Mind.    He is also a founding member of SFTT’s Medical Task Force to help address the large and growing problem of veterans suffering from PTSD.

While SFTT will report more on Dr. Grayson’s innovative approach to treating trauma, it is evident that there is no “magic bullet” to deal with the tragic consequences of veterans suffering from PTSD.  With at least 1 in 5 veterans who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan suffering from PTSD, the ongoing cost to our society is enormous.   Unfortunately, our military court system and the V.A. are structured in such a way that many veterans suffering from PTSD may be effectively deprived of proper treatment.

In a far-reaching report summarized by Howard Altman of the Tampa Tribune, Major Evan R. Seamone, a member of the Army’s Judge Advocate General’s Corps, argues that “courts-martial function as problem-generating courts when they result in punitive discharges that preclude mentally ill offenders from obtaining Veterans Affairs treatment. Such practices create a class of individuals whose untreated conditions endanger public safety and the veteran as they grow worse over time.”     In fact, Major Seamone’s 212 page report for the Military Law Journal may be accessed by clicking on this hyperlink:   The Military Court system and PTSD.

Major Seamone’s observations are clearly “on-target” when it comes to dealing with veterans suffering from PTSD.  Many – if not most – veterans who suffer from PTSD also have a substance abuse problem.   In fact, one experienced addiction specialist suggested that “upwards of 80% of veterans suffering from PTSD also have an addiction problem.”   Unfortunately, the V.A. and our military courts tend to address PTSD and substance abuse as separate issues thereby depriving large numbers of veterans with the comprehensive treatment they deserve.   Sadly, substance abuse is a common opiate for those that suffer from combat-related trauma.

Since the mid-1990, the US judicial system has recognized the need to deal with drug-related criminal activity and have established some 2,600 Drug Treatment Courts in the United States.  Drug treatment courts are specialized community courts designed to help stop the abuse of drugs, alcohol, and related criminal activity. Non-violent offenders who have been charged with simple possession of drugs are given the option to receive treatment instead of a jail sentence.   These programs have proven to be remarkably successful for reducing the level of recidivism in our prison system.

Capitalizing on the infrastructure and success of the Drug Treatment Courts, some 50 or so Veteran Courts have sprung up across the United States to deal with veterans who have committed a crime while suffering from substance abuse.  In many cases, these troubled vets have the support of other Vets (often from the Vietnam era) who “mentor” their military colleagues through the rehabilitation process.   Judge John Schwartz,  one of the early pioneers in the Vet Court system, said that “We offer hope to these troubled veterans who have served our country so valiantly.  It’s simply common sense.”

When communities reach out to help these brave warriors, our society is enriched. From our perspective, it’s simply a matter of doing the right thing!  We owe these brave young men and women big time!

Richard W. May