Friday, October 8, 2010

Helping Hounds

His eyes concealed behind dark sunglasses, Chris Goehner walks into a restaurant in Washington, D.C., shadowed by his service dog, Pelé. When Chris sits, the large, sunny-coated retriever curls up on top of his feet. The restaurant employees notice Pelé and assume that Chris cannot see—until they spy him typing text messages on his cell phone.

Chris is not blind. He returned from military service in Iraq with posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a serious anxiety disorder triggered by traumatic events. Pelé, trained by a special group of inmates in New York, helps Chris cope with the otherwise crippling effects of his condition.

Invisible Battle Scars

Chris comes from a small, closely knit community in Washington State’s Wenatchee Valley. Eighteen days after his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Navy. Though his grandmother offered to pay for college, “I felt like I could do something better,” says Chris. “I could do something more.”

He received training as a medic and served two tours of duty. On the second tour, Chris worked at a base 30 miles southwest of the Iraqi capital. At all hours of the day and night, wounded soldiers arrived by truck, helicopter, or tank. “If you’ve seen the TV show M.A.S.H.,” remembers Chris, “it was pretty much like that.”

In 2005 a suicide bomber destroyed a bus near the base. A young boy wandered into the field hospital with a severe shrapnel wound.

“Boy walked in,” shudders Chris. “Not crying. Not screaming. Not blood everywhere. He moved his hand. Moved his bandage. And you could see right into his abdomen . . . You remember that stuff.”

Now, when Chris sees his young nephew, the image of the wounded Iraqi child comes rushing back.

Chris left Iraq in March 2006. Though he had left danger behind, normal events unsettled him. Fireworks caused a panic. Loud noises irritated him. Many nights, he lay awake for hours. When he did drift into sleep, he would wake from a nightmare covered in sweat. When suicidal thoughts plagued his mind, he decided to seek professional help. He was diagnosed with PTSD.

A psychologist prescribed medication to treat Chris’s anxiety and insomnia, but the young veteran still suffered. Though bright and articulate, he struggled in school, as though he had forgotten how to learn. He tried to find simple work in a hospital emergency room, but even with all his experience, no one would hire him.

Chris’s relationships suffered, too. Acquaintances judged him for serving in a controversial war. Old friends misunderstood him. His marriage, too, became a casualty. Nervous in public and distrustful of strangers, Chris turned inward.

Finding Help

A turning point came when Chris learned about Puppies Behind Bars (PBB), founded by New York resident Gloria Gilbert Stoga in 1997. Under this innovative program, now active in Connecticut, New Jersey, and New York, inmates volunteer to raise and train puppies. With careful instruction from inmates and PBB’s staff instructors, the canines grow up to become guide dogs for the blind, bomb-sniffing dogs for law enforcement, and life-changing companions for veterans like Chris.

Pelé, who was born in 2008 and named after the Brazilian soccer legend, was raised by inmates at Mid-Orange Correctional Facility, a medium-security men’s prison in New York. Pelé lived with inmates 24 hours a day. In addition to normal obedience training, Pelé learned specific commands that would help him serve a veteran. He learned to “block,” or stand close to his handler and keep strangers at a distance, and he learned to “pop a corner,” or go ahead of his handler to check for danger.

Pelé and Chris finally met in November 2009, when Chris traveled to New York to receive a service dog from PBB. Before Chris could take Pelé home with him, though, he also had to go to prison and meet the inmates who raised Pelé. Never having been to prison before, Chris was nervous. To prepare himself, he watched every prison show on television, and his tension mounted. He expected to find scary cliques of tattooed, muscle-bound toughs in the prison yard.

Instead, he found a clean, well-kept facility with inmates who were “nice and respectful.” Some had also served in the military.

The inmates who had raised Pelé sat down with Chris to help him understand his dog’s personality. And they shared some of their own struggles, chief among them the difficulty of reintegrating into a society that judged their past and ignored their contributions, like raising Pelé.

Although Chris realizes the obvious differences between serving time in prison and serving in the military, he empathized with their struggle to reintegrate. Wow, he thought when he heard the inmates’ stories, that’s kind of like getting out of the military!

A New Life

Pelé has made an enormous difference in Chris’s life. Chris no long suffers from nightmares, because Pelé jumps onto the bed and licks his face. Chris finds it easier to control his temper, because Pelé tugs on his sleeve when he raises his voice. Chris has stopped taking five of his psychiatric medications, and he has the confidence to venture into public. Together, Chris and Pelé have been to the White House, Las Vegas, and the inside of the Hoover Dam. Pelé even provides an easy conversation-starter when Chris meets strangers, and he is learning how to trust people again.

He also wants to help others like himself. Recently Chris worked for a senator on the Veterans Affairs Committee, helping to write a Senate resolution clarifying the rights of PTSD-affected veterans with service dogs under the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Chris and other veterans are not the only ones to benefit from Puppies Behind Bars. Gloria Gilbert Stoga, the organization’s founder, says that inmates who participate also reap rewards.

“They learn compassion,” she explains, “and also increased self-esteem. They learn that they can undertake something difficult and succeed.”

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