Service dogs help Iraq War veteran in Wyoming deal with PTSD
Jul. 12, 2017
GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) — Robert James has lived his nightmares.
James drove a gun truck, the second in a convoy of Humvees, the first of which had its sole job to find improvised explosive devices or get blown up by them.
On his first mission in Iraq in 2006, the lead truck took a hit.
"Can you imagine that?" James asked, more than 10 years removed from the explosion.
Imagine with James being in the middle of a war zone and having a truck 600 meters in front of you get blown up by a bomb hidden in the dirt.
James tried to explain it like the moment "right before you think you're going to get in a car accident."
The blood in your body doesn't flow through your veins. It floods them. Your heart stops pumping and vibrates in your chest. Your fingertips go numb, your senses are on high alert and there's no stopping the inevitable.
"That's how you live when you get over there. Constantly," he said. "Then, every time you roll out of that gate, multiply it by 10."
In August the next year, James was blown up by an IED twice in nine days.
He rolled out of the gate 63 times for convoy missions, drove more than 15,000 miles at an average speed of 10 miles an hour and spent a total of 14 months in Iraq on high alert.
Then he brought the war home with him.
A NAVY MAN
James grew up the youngest of seven kids in the tiny town of Encampment.
He knew he wanted to join the military at a relatively young age. Both his adopted father and brother served stints with the Army and Navy. James made up his mind fairly quickly which branch he would join.
"Who doesn't want to see the world at the taxpayers' expense?" he said.
Navy it was.
James also wanted to join for the quality education provided to a service member.
He enlisted in 1988 as an operations specialist working the radar on board a ship. He then joined the reserves and was out of the service for six years, then joined the Navy again as an equipment operator in the construction battalion for five years until finally joining the Wyoming National Guard in 2005.
In January 2006, his company got a warning order for active deployment training. That happens from time to time, James said, just to put the fear of war in the men and women, to keep them on their toes.
"Yeah right," he thought at the idea of being deployed.
Six months later, he was on a plane to Iraq.
He had trained to be a fueler for the mission, but three days before they left he was given a new duty: gun truck driver. That's what he did for a living as a civilian, driving trucks and teaching other drivers before they got their commercial driver's licenses.
"The little training they give you before going over there for the National Guard isn't what really happens over there," he said. "Not even close."
There's no preparing for the real thing. No drill to make it as real, no staged mission to get the blood pumping like it does behind enemy lines in the desert.
He remembers the heat the most, how the Middle Eastern summer was year-round, how the sweat seeped through everything. The adrenaline, the fear, the unknown. Here he was, a Wyoming National Guard member who had two years left on his enlistment and the only thing he thought he'd have to worry about was paying the bills.
Now he was worrying about staying alive.
"Do you really think anyone really wants to go to war?" he asked. "No. They don't."
He said it like someone who has seen things — things he tries his hardest to block from his memory.
"I try to forget everything, but you can't," he said. "I saw some nasty (stuff) over there. Things I don't like to talk about with anyone."
He's only discussed the things he's seen with four people: His wife Jennifer, his gunner, an old friend and one of his bosses.
"I don't want to relive it," he said. "It's bad enough."
A BITTER HOMECOMING
The panic attacks started within weeks of returning home. They were triggered in crowded rooms, small spaces, coffee shops, even grocery stores.
The worst one happened in a movie theater. He told his doctors at the time about the attacks, but their advice was just to try and live as normal a life as possible.
The combination of the sound, the dark and claustrophobia in the movie theater gave James one of the worst attacks he's had. When he's overcome with panic, his chest becomes tight, he has trouble breathing, he can't focus on what's going on and the only thought that runs through his mind is "Get out."
He doesn't even remember what movie he was there to see. Sometimes it all goes dark.
Along with three herniated discs in his back and a screw in his ankle, James was diagnosed with a mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from the war.
The last explosion that gave him the brain injury was the worst of them. All he remembers is a bright flash.
"You're trained to deal with everything while you're there, but when you come back home, there's so much you're not trained to deal with," he said. "They don't train you how to readjust. There's no process for that."
At home, he began to lose his cool, and anger issues that weren't there before emerged. His wife told him for two years to seek help. He thought she was full of it.
"I thought it was normal, freaking out like I did," he said. "I didn't know anything (different) was going on."
A SERVICE DOG
It wasn't until 2015 that James began cognitive processing therapy for his PTSD. It started with a counselor in Rock Springs and he later got psychiatric help in Sheridan.
That's when he was introduced to the idea of a service dog.
One of the frustrations that James has with the Department of Veterans Affairs is that it won't cover expenses for service animals for PTSD.
The federal agency does pay for service animals for veterans with visual, hearing or mobility disorders, but not for former service members whose only disability is PTSD.
The VA has studied the potential benefits of service animals for PTSD patients, but the agency has said that research has been inconclusive.
Without the help from the VA, James had to find a trainer and a dog on his own. Most trainers who work with service animals for PTSD require patients to relocate for a number of months to be there for the training.
"It was very discouraging because I would have had to relocate down in Arizona or Florida and be there for the entire time the dog was training," he said. "I couldn't uproot my family, especially after buying a house. That just wasn't going to happen."
That's when he found Tiffany Fitterer.
THE TRAINER AND THE DOG
Fitterer is 24 years old and has been training service animals for just about five years.
She trains in the small town of Toronto, South Dakota, and was first introduced to James through Jennifer's cousin's son.
From the start, James didn't know that a service dog could actually help him. Fitterer sat him down and explained that men and women who come home from active duty have a hard time making connections, and a service animal is a perfect companion.
"When they are in the military they know what they're trained to do, so when they come home, so much of that is lost," Fitterer said. "Giving them a partner like a service animal, now they have a job to do and something to take care of."
In reality, Fitterer said, the dog is the one doing that for them.
James told her about his panic attacks, about his chest tightening. He told her about never being able to have his back to a door. He told her about loud noises, crowded rooms full of children, the nightmares.
Fitterer gathered all the details and told him to find a dog.
"I need you to look for it and feel it," she told him. "It's an absolute feeling."
"She said I had to have a bond with him instantaneously," James said.
"If the dog comes up to you and sits in front of you, that's a good start," Fitterer told him. "Then when you reach down and touch it, you'll have this feeling come over you like you've never felt or experienced before."
James thinks he looked at 50 to 60 shelters and farms for a dog. In Sturgis, he met a woman who had two Rottweilers. One was named Apollo, his brother Ares.
"You know those butterfly feelings?" James asked, referring to when you watch your bride walk down the aisle. "Quadruple that. That's the feeling I ended up having with Apollo when I initially touched him."
This was in April 2016. Fitterrer worked with Apollo for three months. In mid-July, James traveled to Toronto to do his own training so Apollo would follow the commands that Fitterer had worked through.
"Each dog and each human is different," she said. "Once I know the bond is there, everything else falls into place for how I do what I do."
A LIFE ALTERED
James' life has completely changed since the first days of having Apollo at his side.
Mostly for the good. He had one bad run-in with a local restaurant that seemed intimidated by Apollo's size and asked them to leave. That ticked him off, but he's mostly kept his cool and has been able to transform his behavior.
During his recurring nightmares, James will be woken up by Apollo. In a crowded room, Apollo will sense James' heightening blood pressure and heart rate and have his owner focus on him instead of everyday chaos.
James likens it to plasma globes, the glass balls with a high-voltage electrode in the center of the sphere.
"Imagine my brain is that ball. Those normal pathways aren't there anymore because being (in Iraq) changed it," he said. "All of a sudden it (could) explode everywhere. That's what happens. It's a zero to instant type of problem. And (Apollo) will stop it."
Apollo has almost a dozen commands, from sit, kneel and stay to touch and give, which is something James can say to have Apollo turn a light on in a room before he enters it.
"Dogs are sensory creatures," James said. "They can pick up on (our senses) easily, especially when Apollo and I have that connection."
Just a few weeks ago, Fitterer got a text from James about how he was able to attend his son's concert.
When he was getting dressed for the show, James was scared as ever. The concert was for every fifth and sixth grader in the city who played a string instrument. His son plays the cello.
It was the most crowded room he's ever been in since coming home from the war.
At one point during the show, Apollo heavily leaned on one of James' legs. That was the moment James knew everything would be all right.
"(Now) he can go to the grocery store by himself and not fear or panic about someone coming up behind him in that cramped checkout area," Fitterer said. "A year ago he couldn't have done that. Now he doesn't bat an eye."
ANOTHER BEST FRIEND
A few months of having Apollo at home, James got a call from Fitterer.
The relationship between Apollo's brother, Ares, and the veteran that had been working with him didn't pan out.
James brought in Ares and had both dogs at home.
Ares is named after the Greek god of war. Apollo, the son of Zeus, is the god of many things, including light, truth, prophecy and healing.
To this day, James lives with the war that damaged him.
In his nightmares, he's reminded of the tragedies. His guardians are even named after the very idea that trapped him in dark corners and after the light that now shines in his new life.
They live cohesively with each other and alongside him. He has more control over his fears and anxieties all thanks to the healing powers of animals at the end of a leash.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com