By Jamie Rhodes
WICHITA - A common question I get walking around with my dog, Dixon, is, “So do you train dogs? Are you going to give him up once he’s trained?” The reason for this question: Dixon wears a vest because he is my service dog. These questions remind me of when I get my free meal at Applebee’s on Veterans Day (I’m an Air Force veteran). I’m often overlooked while the older gentleman wearing the “Vietnam Veteran” hat is asked by the hostess, “Are you a veteran?” then is seated before me while the other male veterans get a “thank you for your service.”
This, unfortunately, proves people still judge others from the outside. Perhaps it’s because I’m still young, I don’t have a prosthetic, or perhaps it’s because I’m a female.
Due to MST (Military Sexual Trauma), I deal with anxiety and depression that is heightened in certain settings, circumstances and situations. On the outside, I may go about my day-to-day activities just like any normal woman, but what others don’t see, is the battle and struggle I deal with in my thoughts on a day-to-day basis.
In Wichita alone, nearly 66,000 veterans suffer from PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). Almost half of those veterans have applied, or are on a two-year waiting list, for a service dog.
Per the Veterans Affairs, in 2014 approximately 20 veterans committed suicide each day. 18% of all deaths from suicide among U.S. adults were veterans. Currently, no suicides are known among those veterans who own a service dog. Service dogs can help lower stress and anxiety for those who have PTSD and those who have a need for medication.
The current cost to train a certified service dog can be over $18,000. Tony Turner and Chip Neumann founded Midwest Battle Buddies (MWBB) in 2015. They are a non-profit organization created to help veterans with a certified service dog for very little to no out-of-pocket expense. Most dogs are acquired with the help of local animal shelters and paired with veterans while the veteran trains the dog, with the assistance of the trainer.
Neumann, and dog trainer and owner of Canine Companion Kollege, Tammy Hazlett, work closely with the teams to ensure proper training. “I hope to change the laws and standards for service dogs to make it much harder for a dog to be certified,” Hazlett said, “and make it illegal to have one of these substandard animals as a service dog. Our veterans train their dogs for months, and more, to be certified. It takes a great deal of work from them to get to that point…the idea that some people belittle this commitment and do not follow through with the hard work and commitment our veterans do to be certified, is disrespectful and should not be tolerated.
“My goal as the trainer is to help the veterans train their dogs for their specific needs as service dogs and to give them ongoing support with any changes to their health and specific needs. I want to find the best possible match for the veterans so that bond between the dog and them is strong and they work together as a team. My end goal is for every veteran to be able to get out and enjoy the freedom they fought so hard for with the help of their Battle Buddy.”
Currently, MWBB has five teams that make up the beginners group, four certified teams, which includes myself and dog, Dixon, and Navy veteran, Ken Bower and his Husky, Keno. Bower has PTSD and is a survivor of the USS Cole Bombing. There are seven in the advanced group including Combat Gulf War Navy veteran, Jennifer Trzicky, who suffers from PTSD, agoraphobia and is also a survivor of MST: “Since I have been with Midwest Battle Buddies, I am able to get my life and freedom back. I can go out because my [service] dog, Houdini, has my six. Not only have I been getting better, but have met great heroes like myself to bond with. I am becoming whole again.”
“I have been told that not only have our veterans been able to greatly reduce their medication, but in some cases the veterans have told me they would not be here today without the program,” Neumann said.
MWBB is having a fundraiser July 17 at Crestview Country Club. For more information, or to donate, visit Midwest Battle Buddies, Inc. or Chip Neumann on Facebook. l