More than 10-percent of Veterans who served in Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in a given year according to the VA.
One group out of Watertown is doing its part to help Veterans by providing them with fully-trained service dogs.
Navy Veteran D.J. Church and his service dog Gunner were meant for each other.
“I’m going to tell you it’s not going to be like this for everybody but as soon as they let Gunner out of the truck, he came running to me like, ‘That’s my human, that’s my human,'” Church said.
The partnership has literally been a lifesaver for the 34-year-old Henry-native, in more ways than one.
“If it was not for Gunner, my mom and Lane Logan, I would not be here today. I can say that for a certainty. I would have given into the temptation and taken my life years ago,” Church said.
Towards the end of his military service, Church says a number of issues, from being shot in Iraq to providing first aid in a combat zone, drove him to a mental breakdown and a suicide attempt. He has been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder.
“A lot of things that I had seen and unfortunate things that I had to participate in,” Church said.
Church was discharged in 2016 and came back home. That’s when he and his mother discovered Lane Logan Memorial, a small organization in Watertown that sprung up to provide certified service or companion dogs for Veterans dealing with PTSD.
“Basically at that time, our President had stated, if we could only help one and save another family from suffering the loss that mine did, it was at least one that was still here,” Heather Wipf said.
Wipf’s younger brother Lane Logan was also in the Navy. He didn’t talk about his service much and his family didn’t know he was struggling until it was too late.
“Sadly it was five days before his 29th birthday and we actually buried him on his birthday,” Wipf said.
Logan died by suicide in 2015.
“He was just one of the best men I ever knew in my life,” Wipf said.
Since then, it’s been her family and friends’ mission to raise money and find service dogs for Veterans who are hurting. So far, they’ve matched four Vets with trained dogs.
“It’s night and day. They really come out of their shell. They’re able to go out in public more. It’s just a sense of security and really just a dog provides them with so much more than you would think a dog could do,” Wipf said.
Church and his mom saw the benefits within the first three months of getting Gunner. A fire erupted from a breaker box in Church’s closet one night destroying his room.
“The alarms didn’t go off. The fire alarms didn’t go off and Gunner woke me up and got me and my mom out of the house. So he saved our lives,” Church said.
Gunner is also trained to provide mental support. He’ll get in Church’s face when he’s having a panic attack or a flashback and calm him down.
“Help bring me back to center and reality. He gets his scent on me as much as possible. He helps wake me up from nightmares. He helps me deal with crowds,” Church said.
“Like even now he’s looking around the room making sure nobody is coming up behind me,” Church said.
Thanks to an all volunteer board, donations and connections with trainers in the state, Lane Logan Memorial can provide a dog like Gunner and training for $3-5,000. Service dogs are often much more expensive.
“He doesn’t care that I was in the military. He loves me absolutely, unequivocally because I’m me,” Church said.
Church hopes other Veterans see their bond and find the courage to ask for help.
“I tell them that it’s time for the stigma to be over,” Church said.
“If it’s your life or your pride. Your life is more important and these dogs can save your lives,” Church said.
Dogs that can inspire Veterans to make it one more day and beyond.