Many veterans struggle to navigate the transition from battlefront to home front. Justin is an Army combat veteran with PTSD who owes his very life to a shelter dog who saved him from his darkest self.
When courage meets crisis
Justin was fourteen years old when September 11th devastated the country. Just two weeks prior he was crossing the George Washington Bridge on his first visit to New York, marveling at the city from a car window. It was a captivating experience for Justin, who was raised in the small town of Avery, Texas. As the son of a Vietnam veteran Justin felt compelled to join the service and the shock of 9/11 had solidified his resolve to enlist in the Army.
“I always wanted to do it,” he says.
Justin wasted no time. On his 17th birthday he enlisted and soon after began basic training − all before graduating from high school.
“On June 2, 2004, I was standing at reception at Fort Knox Kentucky,” he remembers, “and I was scared to death.”
Once Justin began life as a soldier these initial jitters were soon forgotten.
Realizing purpose in service
Throughout the course of his Army career Justin would be ordered on three overseas deployments.
In 2006, the young soldier was sent to Balad, Iraq, where he served as a human resources specialist. After his thirteen months there he was sent to Fort Sill Oklahoma for more Advanced Individual Training (AIT) to become a field artilleryman. In 2008, he was sent on his second deployment – and his first in a combat arms setting.
On the streets of Baghdad, Justin felt fulfilled.
“That’s where I felt like I belonged,” he reflects, “on the front lines, protecting my brothers and sisters.”
But returning home from this deployment was different. Along with a sense of pride Justin carried invisible wounds. His struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) resulted in hospitalization and placement on 72-hour suicide watch.
This devastating incident prompted Justin to start therapy. It helped to the extent that Justin eventually stopped attending sessions once his life had fallen back into a more peaceful place. He had met his wife, gotten married and was happy.
Where there are dogs, there is hope
When faced with his third deployment in 2010, this time to Afghanistan, Justin was scared. He knew that there was no guarantee he would make it home and it was not just his own life he had to be concerned about.
“I had a family to go back to.”
Justin made it back physically, but he was not the same. After a year in Afghanistan he felt more isolated than ever. He was not able to sleep or eat, and did not want to be around anyone. The physical and mental exhaustion were overwhelming.
The combat veteran with PTSD was struggling to hold his life together, but with the support of a remarkable canine Justin would persevere.
In 2012 Justin expressed to his wife that he wanted a dog for companionship. Soon after she found the perfect dog for him at Paws for Life Animal Welfare and Protection Society in Pueblo, Colorado. Since 2011 the animal shelter has partnered with Pets for Patriots to help some of the most overlooked dogs and cats in its care find loving homes with veterans who join our program.
Justin was in awe as soon as he met the Australian Shepherd/Blue Heeler mix. And smitten, too.
“I was in love with him.”
This dog’s name was Duke and he was eligible for adoption through Pets for Patriots. Right away, Justin applied to our program and adopted Duke the following week. Within six months the pair were inseparable.
Best friend and life-saver
Because of Justin’s needs as a combat veteran with PTSD, he and his wife spent a year training Duke to be his service animal. The shelter dog excelled at the training and soon began to accompany Justin to work on the Army base. Initially, Duke’s presence was met with skepticism by some who thought the dog was not necessary. This is an issue that Justin and other handlers of service animals continue to encounter, particularly when their disabilities stem from invisible wounds.
While the vast majority of companion pets have neither the aptitude nor attitude for service, Duke was well suited to be a working dog. In 2013, Justin retired from the military as a Sergeant, with Duke – the former shelter dog – at his side.
Justin’s mental health struggle persisted after his service ended, but this time he had Duke to help him through the pain. At his most disheartened, Justin nearly ended his life. But Duke’s presence did not allow him to do it; instead, the dog did something remarkable.
“Duke has saved my life. There’s no doubt about that,” Justin says, adding that “the feeling of love and stuff. It’s difficult to explain.”
The two share a special connection that can only be known through unconditional love; it is an understanding that needs no explanation. Wherever Justin goes, Duke follows. Even when they visit the dog park Duke spends most of his time attached to Justin’s side.
The hero and his hound
Although Justin is Duke’s best bud, Duke is not short of adoring fans. In 2012 the former shelter dog was named Hometown Hero by the local press. Justin welcomes the attention that Duke receives because it brings joy to others.
“Seeing someone smile or laugh, it makes me happy,” he says. “It helps me engage with other people.”
The pair enjoy many regular adventures together. On Mondays Duke accompanies Justin when he plays guitar for a veterans’ organization. On other days the duo can be seen shopping together at a local fishing store, and during football or lacrosse season they go to a local park to watch one of Justin’s sons play lacrosse.
Justin may make the final call on where they’re headed, but Duke tries his best to have a say.
“He has herding instincts. He’ll bump you on the leg and he’ll try to get you to go where he wants you to go,” he laughs.
Saving a life without saying a word
Justin takes every opportunity to talk about Pets for Patriots and appreciates all that we do to make pet guardianship more affordable for military veterans. The combat veteran enjoys the quality, discounted veterinary care Duke receives from Westside Animal Hospital, a highly accredited Pets for Patriots veterinary partner in Colorado Springs.
The Army veteran marvels at the miracle of his life’s journey and how Duke has shaped it.
“It’s an amazing story. I just wish I could hear what [Duke] has to say,” he says with a laugh.
Perhaps Duke has said it all through the unwavering love and loyalty that he has given, and continues to give. The unspoken understanding between pet and person is undeniable and life-saving. Their relationship means everything to Justin.
“You could offer me anything in the world,” he says, “and I wouldn’t take it for that dog.”