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Road to recovery began with walking a dog

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 17, 2012 - For nine years, Lena Mayes locked out the world. The southern Illinois veteran lived alone in her house, not talking to neighbors or family members. They were the enemy.

“I would get out of my house at midnight once a month to go to Walmart for groceries,” she recalls. “And this would only last 15 minutes. I couldn’t stand being around people.”

Her savior was a dog, Sally, who had herself been rescued from a trash can and trained as a service dog to help returning vets.

Mayes’ troubles began when she retired from the military in 1996 after taking part in the U.S.-led Operation Desert Storm mission that removed Iraq from Kuwait in 1991.

The horrible scenes from that war would affect her life forever. She was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, an illness common among many returning veterans. The Veterans Affairs division estimates that more than 18 months after returning from Desert Storm, approximately 8 percent of veterans suffered symptoms of PTSD.

Mayes’ journey to recovery began when one of her doctors suggested she visit Willing Partners, a not-for-profit organization that trains service dogs in West Frankfort, Ill. for veterans with mental and other physical problems.

Still she was scared. “Whenever I used to see more than five people, I would develop panic attacks. I thought they were going to hurt me,” Mayes remembers.

It took Mayes months to get accustomed even to fellow veterans.

“She would come and bow her head and sit close to the entrance,” remembered Linda Krutsinger an Army veteran who runs Willing Partners.

“I felt unsecure and I preferred to sit there for my own security. In case something happened, I would quickly dash to safety,” Mayes explains.

Krutsinger says matching a service dog to a potential handler is a multi-layered process because not all dogs can become service dogs. In some cases the training lasts up to a year depending on a patient’s individual or unique needs. The training process requires that the patient or veteran be present all the time

Mayes’ healing process began by walking Sally every day for 15 minutes. Little did she know that by doing this she was getting familiar and more comfortable with people.

“As you walk your dog, it keeps you focused on her/him and not other people. And you also tend to think that people are not looking at you but the dog,” Krutsinger explained.

“I gave her a home and she in turn watches my back,” says Mayes. When the ghosts of war return in nightmares in the night, “She wakes me up and licks my face until I get up.”

Bob Roberts Katende is a master’s student in the College of Mass Communications and Media Arts at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.