Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: Part 2
Master Sgt. Lyle Babcock is a combat veteran who served more than 30 years in the Army and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Fortunately, he has help from a four-legged friend.
Gunther, a yellow Labrador Retriever, is Babcock’s service dog. His duty is to be at Babcock’s side at all times, allowing him to live and work through his PTSD.
“He’s allowed me freedom from my own prison,” Babcock said of Gunther.
For nearly 15 months, Babcock was deployed in Afghanistan as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 102nd Military History Detachment, Kansas National Guard. He returned home to Topeka and went back to work at Joint Forces Headquarters as the management analyst of the Human Resources Office, Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.
On the surface, it was business as usual, but internally, the battle was still raging.
He struggled to reintegrate with society. He suffered from anxiety and had problems sleeping and concentrating. He had panic attacks. His immediate instinct, however, was not to seek help because he feared people might stigmatize him. Not until he started volunteering in the PTSD clinic at the Colmery-O’Neil VA Medical Center did he realize he wasn’t alone.
“It was good to just sit down and talk with other vets and realize we’re all dealing with the same stuff,” Babcock said.
Another way Babcock relieved stress was through his love of being on the water. While researching kayaks to purchase, he discovered a group called Heroes on the Water (HOW), a nonprofit organization that helps service members and veterans relax, rehabilitate, and reintegrate through kayaking and fishing.
A few months later, Babcock, along with a group of volunteers, started the Kansas chapter of HOW. Through HOW, Babcock learned of a group that provides service dogs to veterans and service members struggling with PTSD and/or a traumatic brain injury.
Joe Jeffers founded Warrior’s Best Friend (WBF), Kansas City, Missouri, with the goal of pairing wounded warriors with trained service dogs rescued from animal shelters throughout the United States. Jeffers contacted Babcock about the possibility of pairing an interested veteran from HOW with a trained yellow Lab. As Babcock learned more about WBF and the service dog available, he realized that he might be interested in being paired with the dog himself. After discussing it with family, friends, and a VA counselor, Babcock filled out the application to be paired with Gunther.
“Our pairing was quite unique,” said Babcock. “He’d never been around water, so the first time I took him to the lake, of course it was like glass. He stepped right off the dock, headfirst into the water. His eyes were huge. I was right down there encouraging him and pulled him out of the water. That was the instant we connected.”
The two go everywhere together-restaurants, the grocery store, the lake, and even to work.
However, gaining clearance to bring him to the office was a lengthy process. The most difficult part was disclosing to his leadership that he needed help.
“You want me to admit to you that I’m broken and that I want to start bringing a service dog in,” Babcock said. “That was a roadblock. That took me a long time to write that request and actually send it in. Looking back, it was a hard but a necessary step.”
Babcock said that there are other service members in the Kansas National Guard that are living with PTSD, trying to fight it on their own, afraid, as he was, to admit they need help.
“The first thing is coming to grips with recognition that you do need some help and there’s no shame or embarrassment in that,” said Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, Kansas adjutant general. “We all find ourselves at points in our lives where we do need somebody to lean on and do need the ability to reach out.”
Tafanelli said the Kansas National Guard is an “extended family” and that the first step to getting better is recognizing that you have a problem.
“We owe it to all of our soldiers and airmen to look out for their well-being,” he said. “It really isn’t a weakness. In many cases, these traumatic events have had a lasting impact”-an impact that Babcock and Gunther outwardly embody.
Gunther wears a service vest akin to a uniform while he’s on duty. A patch on it reads “PTSD service dog-ask to pet.” Babcock does allow people to pet Gunther, if they ask, which is not the case with most service dogs. Jeffers compared service dogs to other medical tools, like a wheelchair or crutches-their purpose is to help their user to live as normal a life as possible.
“I learned, during the pairing process, that having a service dog is a lot of work and responsibility,” Babcock said. “They are 100 percent dependent on you, from feeding to cleaning up. They become dependent on you as much as you become dependent on them. A service dog is not for every service member or veteran dealing with PTSD, but he’s changed my life for the better.”
Gunther’s training was provided by WBF. Jeffers said the organization looks at 200-300 dogs to every one dog that they deem a service dog candidate. The dog has to demonstrate a certain level of focus and eagerness to learn to be considered for service. The dog’s training can take up to 14 months.
Once it is trained, an eligible veteran is selected and is put through a familiarization process with the dog, which can take three to six months.
“When you think about PTSD in terms of the symptom clusters (avoidance; intrusive, negative thoughts/emotions; and hyperarousal), the ways in which a dog can help are many,” said Chalisa Gadt-Johnson, PhD, licensed psychologist at the VA Medical Center. “The companionship is great for those who feel a sense of isolation, along with helping with those who may be avoiding people and/or places.”
While Gunther has helped him, Babcock acknowledged that a service dog may not be the best treatment option for everyone. Gadt-Johnson said there are other treatment options including peer-to-peer, group, and peer-to-counselor counseling, which can teach better coping strategies. Topeka’s VA Medical Center offers many education groups and treatment programs for substance abuse, addiction, and psychiatric disorders, including a seven-week inpatient stress disorder treatment program, open to affected service members and veterans from around the country.
“The first step in reclaiming your quality of life is to seek out help,” Babcock said. “There are a lot of veterans and service members struggling with PTSD every day. We think the only solution is avoidance, isolation, drinking, drugs, or even suicide. Sometimes the biggest step is admitting to ourselves that we can’t do it on our own, putting our pride aside, and asking others for help.”
“I was afraid to take that first step,” Babcock admitted. “But now that I have, I wish I’d done it sooner. I’m starting to feel more in control of my life. My battle buddy, Gunther, is by my side, helping me get through the rough spots in my day. I don’t know what I’d do without him, but it took admitting that I needed help in order to get where I am today.”
For information on treatment, visit www.va.gov/healthbenefits/apply/veterans.asp.
This article is adapted from an original story by Sgt. Zach Sheely, Kansas Adjutant General’s Public Affairs Office.