Every day in the United States, 22 veterans commit suicide.
Many of them are suffering silently from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, as well as the physical and emotional toll of war. And though science now understands PTSD better than ever, there are still plenty of veterans who don’t seek help.
Darwin Odom spent years in the Army Special Forces, serving in both Vietnam and Desert Storm. Before he retired from his second career in law enforcement, Odom said he was able to “compartmentalize” his worst memories — to push them away and keep them in check.
But after retirement, the free time led to wandering thoughts and worsening symptoms. “It’s like a stigma,” Odom said of seeking treatment. “[Veterans] don’t want their handicaps identified.”
Odom was finally goaded into a PTSD screening for himself. When he was diagnosed, Odom went to Abilene for 16 weeks to work with the Train a Dog, Save a Warrior — or TADSAW — program. Because of his experience with drug-detection dogs in law enforcement, Odom was able to catch on quickly. Now he has a service dog of his own, Dexter, and is Brown County’s first certified TADSAW trainer. Odom recently began working with a local veteran to train a dog of his own.
TADSAW takes a unique approach to service animals. Program director Bart Sherwood said the organization aims to train veterans’ own dogs rather than providing them with a pre-trained one. “We want them to go through that process together,” Sherwood said. “After six months or a year with a human who doesn’t really know how to work with them, even the best service dogs can lose some skill. This way, we’re taking an imperfect dog and imperfect human and molding them together to be perfect for each other.”
If the veteran does not own a suitable dog, TADSAW works with animal shelters to find a good fit. Odom’s wife Debbie praised the Corinne T. Smith Animal Center and its staff for providing a dog to TADSAW free of charge. “Our local shelter stepped up to the plate and helped our veterans,” she said. “That’s amazing.”
The veteran Odom works with has both PTSD and mobility problems, and his dog must be trained to deal with both. Training sessions occur weekly at busy public locations, like the mall, so the dog will learn to focus despite distractions.
TADSAW also makes family a central part of the training program, and a veteran’s spouse and kids always attend sessions as well. Debbie Odom said PTSD effects not only veterans but everyone around them. “Veterans from the dawn of time have lived with PTSD, and they don’t have to,” she said. “If we can help one veteran and one veteran’s family, that’s all we’re here for. This isn’t about us at all. It’s about getting the information out so that other veterans can see they’re not alone.”
Odom said he hopes more local veterans will take advantage of this program. “All I want is for word to get out that this is available,” he said. “It’s not for everybody, but there’s some that it will really enhance their lives.”
TADSAW has paired more than 747 dogs and veterans across the country. More information about TADSAW is available at www.tadsaw.org.