On Veterans Day, A&E launched Dogs of War, a new docuseries that shines a much-needed light on the record number of military vets struggling with emotional complications brought back from the battlefield. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and addiction are two of the biggest issues veterans face once home. PTSD brings on feelings of intense anxiety, intrusive memories and horrifying flashbacks. In a desperate attempt to numb that pain, many turn to drugs or alcohol. The result is a vicious cycle of substance abuse and mental strain. At its core, Dogs of War is about men and women who bravely fought for our country – men and women who are wounded and desperate to heal. And we, the lucky viewers, are given a unique glimpse into the lives of these vets as they experience amazing and curative effects brought on not by numbing pharmaceuticals or alcohol, but by building a bond with service dogs.
The Birth of Paws and Stripes
Jim and Lindsey Stanek intimately understand the frustrations of thousands of vets and their family members. When Jim returned from his deployment with the 1st Infantry Division of the Army, he was suffering with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. In searching for alternate forms of therapy, the couple saw first-hand the positive impact of service dogs. They eventually founded Paws and Stripes, an organization that pairs veterans with rescue dogs from local animal shelters. Together, the vets and dogs go through an extensive nine-to-12-month training program, learning how to work together as a team. Paws and Stripes is funded by donations and is free for the veterans. Jim was admittedly nervous about filming a series for TV, but knowing the show could help raise awareness about PTSD and the other struggles veterans face – he and Lindsey were all in. I had the honor of sitting down with Lindsey Stanek to learn a little more about their journey. Here’s what the hardworking Paws and Stripes CEO had to say.Q: Lindsey, it’s no secret that record numbers of military vets are struggling with emotional complications brought back from the battlefield. What was it like for Jim when he got back and how did you handle it?
A: Well, I met Jim after he had already been deployed twice, so I never knew the “pre-war” man. When he got back, he was sent to Brook Army Medical Center in Texas. That time in the hospital really just forced everything to catch up with him emotionally. He was put on so many different medications; he was quickly transformed into what I’d call a zombie. He would just lie in bed for days…-Lindsey StanekHe was put on so many different medications; he was quickly transformed into what I’d call a zombie. He would just lie in bed for days…literally days. I used to call his roommate and ask him to check and make sure Jim was still breathing. I couldn’t get through to him; he was unresponsive and it really scared me. I didn’t know if he would ever come back, you know, mentally. The hospital kept changing his meds. They wouldn’t take him off of them; they would just start him on something else. There was never any talk of getting off all these pills; it was so frustrating. The cocktails of meds made things worse for Jim. You get one effect from something on Monday and by Thursday he was taking something else. And it was a process that just kept snowballing.Q: It’s pretty obvious that the VA is stretched thin, especially its mental health care system. Did you find that to be true with Jim’s treatment process?
A: Absolutely. When they first get out of the military, instead of just trying to address the real problems, it’s like a lot of providers are just putting a band-aid on a huge wound. The VA system is so overwhelmed right now; they don’t know what to do with all these vets who are really suffering.Q: So, what was it like for Jim trying to acclimate himself back into “normal” life after the military – especially while dealing with his PTSD issues?
A: After Jim’s divorce from his first wife, when he was still in the military, he would go out and drink at the bar with his buddies on the weekends. He was trying to cope. I would pick him up when the bar closed and take him back home. But when he was out of the war and stuck in a hospital with nothing to distract him – plus being told he would be medically retired – his whole world crashed in on him. Jim had to learn how to start over. I mean, one minute he’s an NCO with his troops in the Army and, next thing you know, he’s struggling to find a job and ended up working as an Animal Handler for the city. He was out there trying to work and, with that military mindset, he tried to push himself to do more – to do better – each day. That type A personality rubbed some of his co-workers the wrong way. Then he’d be right back to wondering how to care for his family and how to pay the bills. It all just compounded things. It was like he was on the verge of blowing up every minute of the day; I could see his frustration building. I wanted to help him so much because, you know, it’s tough to see the man you love going through something like that. I felt helpless…and I know he did too. It broke my heart.Q: What were some of the things that would trigger Jim’s PTSD symptoms?
A: Literally anything triggered him. We’d see a man in the grocery store and Jim would whisper to me “I had to kill a guy who looked like that.” I mean, he didn’t even know what he was saying. He had flashbacks in public due to loud noises, smells or boxes on the side of the road. He would experience blackouts, sometimes falls. He still struggles with memory impairment and other complications brought on by a TBI [traumatic brain injury] from multiple IED and RPG blasts overseas. And, you know, it’s not the vet’s fault. It’s their nervous system that has been rewired by the stress they’ve endured. These triggers and reactions are just biological responses to emotional wounds…they’re invisible wounds. …it’s not the vet’s fault. It’s their nervous system that has been rewired by the stress they’ve endured. These triggers and reactions are just biological responses to emotional wounds…they’re invisible wounds.-Lindsey StanekQ: What gave you the idea of trying out a therapy dog?
A: I worked at a vet clinic and I’ve always been someone who rescued dogs. Jim would stop with me and just pick up stray dogs; there could be a dog on the side of the road and we’d just pick it up. We’d take them home and try to find them good homes or just adopt them ourselves.
When Jim was still in the hospital, they would bring therapy dogs around to visit the patients. Every time a dog came in his room, Jim changed. It was like this sense of calm came into the room with the dog; it was amazing. With the dogs, Jim could sleep. He could have conversations with people without anxiety. I could tell there was something there. Therapy dogs bring comfort to patients. Once he got out of the hospital in 2009, I had adopted a young, female Catahoula-mix dog that we named Sarge – you know she’s a big star of the show! But at the time, she was just Jim’s dog…his pet. We moved to New Mexico and it became clear that Jim needed a little more “help” from Sarge. I decided to look into the process of getting or training a service dog. We called around to see how we might go about getting Sarge trained, but there was always a reason why it couldn’t work. Either the programs worked with their own dogs from when they were puppies and wouldn’t train Sarge, or we couldn’t afford the program.Q: How much were these programs charging for a service dog?
At the time, there was a quote of $60K for one service dog. And that was out of pocket. No insurance, no assistance funding – we would have to come up with the funding ourselves. That was in 2010. We were able to find some trainers that were willing to help – they agreed to train Jim and Sarge as a team. -Lindsey Stanek Today, I think the cost is somewhere around $30K, which is still a lot of money. I mean, someone is asking for something to assist with their disability and can’t get it because they don’t have the money or insurance to cover it, which felt counter-intuitive. We were struggling to make ends meet, so we certainly couldn’t afford to buy a therapy dog, you know? So, we decided to do it ourselves. We were able to find some trainers that were willing to help – they agreed to train Jim and Sarge as a team. We just thought “hey, this will allow us to have a little bit of control over our lives,” plus we knew Sarge could do this.Q: And out of that “take the bull by the horns” moment, Paws and Stripes was born?
A: Yeah! Soon after starting Jim and Sarge’s training, we hired trainers and realized we could actually help a lot of other veterans who were in the same situation. That’s when Paws and Stripes really took off. Over time, with the help of our Director of Education, we created a completely original curriculum. I mean, as a whole, we offer a program that no one else does. We wanted to train these dogs to help the vets struggling with PTSD, anxiety triggers, traumatic brain injuries…it’s all individualized for each veteran. We also focus on other ways we can help the vets while they are going through our training program. It’s a tough program, but when these vets and dogs graduate, they are equipped to take on so many situations and things they thought they would never be able to. They are a team – an unbreakable team. …when these vets and dogs graduate, they are equipped to take on so many situations and things they thought they would never be able to. They are a team – an unbreakable team.-Lindsey StanekQ: I’m sure you have a ton of memorable moments just in working with the vets and their dogs, but are there a few that really stand out in your mind?
A: Oh wow, there are really so many of them! But I think everyone will be touched to hear the awesome success stories of these two vets:Roger and Max*
Roger was diagnosed with PTSD and TBI by the Veterans Hospital. The diagnoses deeply affected him; he never left the house, was very depressed and had a lot of pent up anger. Simply put, PTSD controlled his life.
Roger reached out to Paws and Stripes for help and his life has never been the same. When he met his new service dog, Max, life suddenly had meaning again. Training with the P&S staff and going to counseling, which is also part of the program, provided Roger with that spark he lost somewhere along his way back from the war. “Paws and Stripes gave me the physical and emotional independence that no one else could. Max made my smile grow and grow. I was amazed at the new life he was giving me,” said Roger. “Max provides me with medication reminders, which is great due to my TBI. So twice a day, I get kisses and medication… and Max get treats. He also allows me to go into public, which is something I had totally stopped doing. I’ve even been able to stop taking some of my pain medications, relying on Max’s strength instead. He wakes me up from nightmares with a bark and lick.”Bethenny and Lando*
Bethenny bravely served our country, returning home with honor and respect… and a diagnosis of PTSD. Like the thousands of military vets struggling with PTSD, she found life to be a never-ending struggle. Somehow, all the joy she used to find in friends and family was just no longer there. She didn’t want to talk to anyone, see anyone or leave the house. Unfortunately, these are common symptoms of PTSD. Lando alerted to things that affected Bethenny; he even warned her of oncoming headaches early enough that she could prevent them altogether.Bethenny enrolled in the Paws and Stripes program and met her service dog Lando. Though she immediately adored him, she wasn’t sure if she’d made the right decision. After all, caring for a new dog is a big commitment. And then one day, it happened. Seemingly out of the blue, Bethenny realized that Lando offered her a sense of comfort that she hadn’t felt in so long…a feeling she desperately missed. Lando alerted to things that affected Bethenny; he even warned her of oncoming headaches early enough that she could prevent them altogether. Looking back now, Bethenny’s former life seems like a distant bad memory. Today, Bethenny spends a lot of time at the volunteer veteran’s clinic. She loves telling her story and letting fellow vets know that PTSD doesn’t have to rule their lives. And with every step she takes and every life she impacts, she does it all with Lando by her side.Q: Changing the subject really quickly, I know that medicinal marijuana is now legal in New Mexico, which is where Paws and Stripes is located. What have you personally seen among the veteran community as far as this issue goes?
A: You know, that’s a great question. We don’t take a political stance on any issue, really. But I will tell you this; we know of a lot of veterans in NM who have embraced it. To be honest, something that I don’t think gets talked about very much is the fact that there are so many different ways people with the medical necessity can use medical marijuana. There are concoctions made specifically for sleep, pain, anxiety, and so on. And it doesn’t have to be smoked. You can vaporize it, eat it in the foods and candies from the authorized distributors, or even use lotions and body oils that contain the active ingredients. I mean, why not try something that is a natural remedy? We’ve got all these chemicals being pushed on the pharmaceutical market; why not try something that isn’t full of toxic ingredients? Frankly, if it works and it helps – I say go for it. As long as it’s prescribed, regulated and controlled, I don’t see a problem with it and vets shouldn’t be looked down upon for trying it.Q: Lindsey, Paws and Stripes has done so much amazing work already, but what do you guys hope to achieve in the future?
A: We will have to see where the future takes Dogs of War. As for Paws and Stripes, we have graduated over 50 service dogs, rescued more than 70 shelter dogs and provided mental health support to more than 85 veterans and family members. We can do so much more and really make a positive difference for these veterans. The show is a great way to get these issues out there in front of a huge audience. We’d also love to do a PSA at some point to educate the public on the do’s and don’ts of interacting with service dogs. People don’t understand that these dogs, as cute as they are, they are doing a job – a job that’s both with and for the vet. Petting, talking to, calling, or running up to the dogs prevents them from working. They can miss a cue or an alert that the vet is giving, which could cause problems for the veteran. We’re just so passionate about helping and our mission is to provide as many service dogs as we are able for veterans who need one…and there’s no reason that can’t happen. Dogs of War is just a great vehicle that helps us to reach anyone who’s ever been touched by PTSD, traumatic brain injury or addiction issues. Learn more: Dogs of War airs on the A&E network on Sundays at 11 p.m. (EST). If you’d like to learn more about Paws and Stripes, log on to www.pawsandstripes.org. While there, you can show your support by leaving a comment, donating or shopping the Paws and Stripes store. Image Credits: Leigh Vogel/ Matthew McDermott/Steve Miller/Steve Miller
*Names and identifying details have been changed.