Our Returning Troops: From Military Hero to Therapy Dog

Our Returning Troops: From Military Hero to Therapy Dog

In two deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, Ddoc saved lives in battle and paid a cost: canine PTSD. His career was over until one soldier took up his cause.

Guideposts: Sgt. Wells poses with Ddoc.

As a behavioral health therapist at Fort Bragg, I deal with trauma. I see what war can do to human beings. PTSD. Traumatic brain injuries. Issues of trust and rebuilding relationships.

And it’s not just human beings who are affected, which came as a revelation to me when I met Ddoc. And what Ddoc would teach me helped me understand my fellow soldiers and their suffering. Ddoc gave me hope.

Ddoc is a Belgian Malinois, a retired military working dog. (The double letter in his name means he was bred to be an MWD at Lackland Air Force Base.)

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He is one of 650 canines who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan as sentries and scouts, sniffing out bombs, clearing buildings and protecting soldiers. Intense, dangerous missions. Ddoc and his fellow MWDs are tough and brave, loyal almost to a fault. But now he needed a loving home.

The family who had adopted him wasn’t able to keep him. I met him at their house. I already owned one Malinois, Ranger, and a German shepherd, Sofie. I’m not a professional handler, I just love dogs. Especially these dogs.

“We’re not keeping him,” my husband, Jeff, announced when I brought Ddoc home. “We can’t keep up with the dogs we have already.”

“Just until I can find him a good home,” I said. “Jeff, he’s a veteran. We owe him that much, at least.”

Jeff just shook his head. I got out food and water bowls. I have dozens of them. Jeff found a blanket and laid it on the floor for a bed. I’d already put Sofie and Ranger in another room.

Then I noticed something: Ddoc systematically searching the living room. He was tense, as if he was on a mission, clearing the space. It’s like he’s still on the front lines, I thought.

His muscles rippled under his fur. I could see his mind working. Finally Ddoc relaxed and lay on the blanket. I felt myself relax too.

BOOM! The house shook at the sound of practice rounds of artillery being fired at Bragg, some 40 minutes away. It was a noise I’d gotten used to. In the other room, Ranger and Sofie were quiet.

But Ddoc snapped to attention. He jumped up and frantically circled the coffee table, his eyes wild. Every few minutes he’d stop and turn his head, listening intently.

“Ddoc, it’s okay,” I said. “It’s all done now.”

He wouldn’t even look at me. He was shaking. As if he were somewhere else. I’d seen this same intense, haunted expression in the soldiers I’d counseled. A kind of paralyzing, debilitating fear. PTSD. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

But I could talk to a person and get some sense of what they were feeling, offer ideas for ways to manage the debilitating stress.

“Oh, Chloe,” Jeff said. “This poor dog. He’s really hurting.”

“I know,” I said. “I didn’t realize he had these problems.”

That night I called Ddoc’s former handler in Afghanistan and got the story. I hung up and looked over at Ddoc, curled up tight on his blanket. I prayed we’d get through the night without any loud noises. After what I’d just heard it seemed the most I could hope for.

“What happened to him?” Jeff asked.

“Just a few months ago he was out on patrol with his handler, Mike,” I said. “There was mortar fire. Ddoc and Mike were blown off their feet. Mike landed on top of Ddoc.

"He tried to return fire but Ddoc wouldn’t let him. He dragged Mike to a ditch and stood guard over him until it was safe to go back to the base. Ddoc spent the night under Mike’s bed. He wouldn’t stop trembling.

“The next morning, when Mike got his gear to go to breakfast, Ddoc wouldn’t come out from under the bed. He wouldn’t go on patrol. Finally they sent him home. Mike said Ddoc found fourteen IEDs. He saved soldiers’ lives, a lot of soldiers. But Mike doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to work again.”

Jeff stroked Ddoc’s side. “Ddoc’s a war hero,” he said. “He stays here. With us.”

That night Ddoc slept next to our bed and cried out in his sleep, his paws churning, jaw twitching. “Ddoc, it’s okay,” I whispered. “You’re safe here. I promise.” But what if he needed more help than I could give him?

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We’d both been awake for hours when the first rays of sunlight streamed through the window. I got up and Ddoc followed me to the back door. “Go out,” I said. But he wouldn’t leave my side. I found a leash and we went out into the backyard.

A squirrel darted across the grass. Ddoc didn’t seem to even notice. He stood there, glued to my leg, a big strong dog literally afraid to move.

I knelt down beside him and hugged him, my hands stroking his fur. “Don’t worry, Ddoc,” I said. “I won’t let anything happen to you.” Ddoc just stared straight ahead, his muscles tensed.

Reluctantly I left for work, praying that Ddoc would be okay inside the house, that there wouldn’t be sudden loud noises. Back on base I sat with veterans one after the other and listened to how they were struggling to adjust to life at home. Their nightmares. Their troubled, convoluted thoughts.

I tried to follow my training, showing empathy while staying emotionally detached. But when I came home there was Ddoc, waiting for me, safe, thank God, but with the same needs, the same challenges. Only now I had no choice but to get involved. I was his caretaker.

I took him to the vet, who prescribed antidepressants and antianxiety medication. I gave him a pill anytime there was artillery fire. It took 30 minutes before the drug took effect. There was nothing I could do but try to support him until then.

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