Iraq Vet Gets Dog, New Chance at Life

Sgt. Bill Campbell's dog watches his back and reminds him to take medicine.


March 19, 2008 — -- Until recently, Sgt. Bill Campbell's horrifying memories from his tour of duty in Iraq left him unable to leave his house.

Constantly fearing he would be attacked from behind — a paranoia stemming from his violent tour of duty — Campbell says his post traumatic stress disorder symptoms made everyday life virtually unbearable.

That is, until he met Pax, a now 17-month-old yellow Labrador, specially trained to help him cope with PTSD, doing everything from reminding him to take his medication to coaxing him out of his house.

"Pax forces me to go out," Campbell told "He has to go for walks."

Pax was donated to Campbell by the N.Y.-based non-profit organization Puppies Behind Bars, an organization that has provided service dogs to individuals with disabilities since 1997, but just recently expanded their program to include war veterans, too.

And when Campbell, 46, returned from Iraq in 2005, help was exactly what he needed. In addition to being diagnosed with PTSD, car bombs had sprayed shrapnel in his hand and head, causing nerve damage and traumatic brain injury.

"I have anxiety, depression and really exaggerated start response," said Campbell, who spent several weeks in a veteran's hospital near his hometown in Shelton, Wash., about 60 miles west of Seattle. "And memory problems."

Pax, who is the first dog to be deployed by Puppies Behind Bar's new initiative "Dog Tags: Service Dogs for Those Who've Served Us," knows more than 50 different commands. He warns Campbell of strangers or possible dangers, clears crowded areas and provides a reality check when Campbell gets lost in hallucinations or nightmares.

"It does help that he can protect my back," said Campbell, of Pax's training to always keep an eye on his back. "If I go places and tell him to sit, he faces the opposite direction and it's comforting."

"Pax will lie down, and if someone is coming up from behind me, he'll sit up and warn me," said Campbell. "Then I'll know someone's coming."

Puppies Behind Bars incurs all the costs of Pax's care, said company president and founder Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who told that two more veterans are slated to get dogs this coming May.

Costs include the extensive training that the puppies receive, said Stoga, who receives the puppies when they are 12 weeks old and then places them with inmates at seven different prisons.

Both the inmates and the puppies learn discipline through the arrangement, and after about a year and a half, the dogs graduate to what Stoga refers to as "dog finishing school," which includes taking the dogs to get "socialized" at West Point, where they are able to interact with injured soldiers.

"The inmates love it, a number of the men are veterans themselves, and they absolutely love that they're doing something to help a fellow service member," said Stoga. "And several of the women in prison suffer from depression of PTSD and appreciate the difference the dog will be able to make to someone who is suffering."

According to Marty Becker, a veterinarian and author of "The Healing Power of Pets," people often underestimate the unique power dogs have to help individuals heal, even from the most severe injuries.

"Pets know exactly how close to draw near, they are great readers of body language," said Becker. "If they're with their owner and the owner is having anxiety, they read that and draw close just the right amount at the perfect timing. That's something humans aren't capable of doing.

"Dogs are more dependable than death and taxes," added Becker, "especially when it comes to emotional rescues."

And it's not only the human who benefits from the relationship, said Becker, who told that "working dogs are happy dogs," and often enjoy the attention they get when they're on the job.

While Campbell admits what a huge help Pax has been to his slow recovery, he said that, at first, the dog was more stress than he was stress reliever.

"When [Pax first arrived], having him here was very stressful," said Campbell, who explained that during Pax's first weeks, he would sometimes bark unexpectedly, which was difficult for Campbell to cope with, given his sensitivity to sudden noises.

"PTSD makes you not want to go out in public and makes you not want people to talk to you," said Campbell. "You just don't want people around you.

"And when you do go out he's a magnet for people," said Campbell, who added he is still uneasy talking to people. "People come up to you and want to pet him and talk to you. It is very uncomfortable for me.

"I think as time goes on, things will get better," said Campbell, who visits a psychotherapist twice a week, and is in constant contact with his doctors.

"He's my friend," said Campbell. "I call him 'my buddy.'"

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