TOPEKA, Kan., May 18, 2015 —
Master Sgt. Lyle Babcock is a combat veteran who’s served more than 30 years in the Army. He is an avid fisherman. He loves to kayak.
He also suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Fortunately, he has help from a four-legged friend.
Gunther, a 2-and-a-half year old, 100-pound yellow Labrador retriever, is Babcock’s service dog. His duty is to be at Babcock’s side at all times, allowing Babcock to live and work through his PTSD.
“He’s been a godsend to me,” Babcock said of Gunther. “He’s allowed me freedom from my own prison.”
An Internal Battle
Babcock was deployed nearly 15 months to Afghanistan as the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 102nd Military History Detachment, Kansas National Guard. He returned home to Topeka, Kansas, to his wife Traci and went back to work at Joint Forces Headquarters as the management analyst of the Human Resources Office, Kansas Adjutant General’s Department.
On the surface it was business as usual, but internally, the battle was still raging.
He struggled to reintegrate with society. He suffered from anxiety, problems sleeping and concentrating. He had panic attacks. His immediate instinct, however, was not to seek help out of fear of a stigma he thought people may place on him. Not until he started volunteering in the PTSD clinic at the Colmery-O’Neil Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Topeka did Babcock realize he wasn’t alone, others were struggling with the same inner turmoil.
“It was good to just sit down and talk with other vets and realize we’re all dealing with the same stuff,” Babcock said.
Another way Babcock relieved stress was through his love of being on the water. While researching kayaks to purchase, he discovered a group called Heroes on the Water, a nonprofit organization that helps service members and veterans relax, rehabilitate and reintegrate through kayaking and fishing.
Discovering Service Dogs
A few months later, Babcock, along with a group of volunteers, started the Kansas chapter of Heroes on the Water. Through HOW, Babcock learned of a group that provides service dogs to veterans and service members struggling with PTSD and/or a traumatic brain injury.
Joe Jeffers founded Warrior’s Best Friend based in Kansas City, Missouri, with the goal of pairing wounded warriors with trained service dogs rescued from animal shelters throughout the United States. Jeffers contacted Babcock about the possibility of pairing an interested veteran from Heroes on the Water with a trained yellow Labrador.
As Babcock learned more about Warrior’s Best Friend and the service dog available, he realized that he might be interested in being paired with the dog himself. After discussing it with family, friends and a Veterans Affairs counselor, Babcock decided to take a leap of faith and filled out the application to be paired with Gunther.
A Hard but Necessary Step
“Our pairing was quite unique,” Babcock said. “He’d never been around water, so the first time I took him to the lake, of course it was like glass. He stepped right off the dock, headfirst into the water. His eyes were huge. I was right down there encouraging him and pulled him out of the water. That was the instant we connected.”
The two go everywhere together -- restaurants, the grocery store, the lake, and even to work.
However, gaining clearance to bring him to the office was a lengthy process for Babcock. The most difficult part was disclosing to his leadership that he needed help.
“You want me to admit to you that I’m broken and that I want to start bringing a service dog in,” Babcock said. “That was a road block. That took me a long time to write that request and actually send it in. Looking back, it was a hard, but a necessary step.”
Babcock said that there are other service members in the Kansas National Guard who are living with PTSD, trying to fight it on their own, afraid, as he was, to admit they need help.
“The first thing is coming to grips with recognition that you do need some help and there’s no shame or embarrassment in that,” said Army Maj. Gen. Lee Tafanelli, Kansas adjutant general. “We all find ourselves at points in our lives where we do need somebody to lean on and do need the ability to reach out.”
Tafanelli said the Kansas National Guard is an “extended family” and that the first step to getting better is recognizing there’s a problem.
“We owe it to all of our soldiers and airmen to look out for their wellbeing,” he said. “It really isn’t a weakness. In many cases, these traumatic events have had a lasting impact,” an impact that Babcock and Gunther outwardly embody.
Gunther wears a service vest akin to a uniform while he’s on duty. A patch on it reads “PTSD service dog -- ask to pet.” Babcock does allow people to pet Gunther if they ask -- which, according to Jeffers, is not the case with most service dogs. Jeffers compared service dogs to other medical tools, like a wheelchair or crutches -- their purpose is to help their user to live as normal a life as possible.
Gunther ‘is Right There’
“This is something I spoke to the trainer with during the pairing process,” Babcock said. “I decided that as long as Gunther would maintain focus on me, I would allow others to pet him with my permission. He has always got an eye on me. When I say something, he’s up and moving and he’s focused strictly on me. If I start getting nervous, or anxious, or loud, he’s right there.”
At work, Gunther soon became one of the “employees.”
“I know my co-workers had some apprehensions about me bringing a service dog into the work area,” Babcock said. “Most of them had never been around a service dog before. I think some of them thought that Gunther would be like their pets at home -- constantly seeking attention or being a distraction at work. I think they were shocked at how well trained Gunther is and most of the time they don’t even realize he’s there with me.
“When Gunther walks into the office with me, my co-workers greet him and tell him good morning. They look after him -- the way they look after me. I understood that by taking this step there was a chance it would have a negative impact on others around me, which is the last thing I wanted. But the opposite has been true. They have been very accepting of Gunther and of the fact that I am receiving counseling for PTSD.”
Gunther didn’t only have to integrate at work, but also at home with Traci, the family’s Pomeranian, Pookie, and their three cats.
“We laid a few ground rules,” Traci said. “I don’t need the added work. It’s his dog, but Gunther is definitely part of the family. He’s really grown on me. He’s a real likable dog. He’s well-mannered and well trained.”
“I learned, during the pairing process, that having a service dog is a lot of work and responsibility,” Babcock said. “They are 100 percent dependent on you, from feeding to cleaning up. They become dependent on you as much as you become dependent on them. A service dog is not for every service member or veteran dealing with PTSD, but he’s changed my life for the better.”
Gunther’s training was provided by Warrior’s Best Friend. Jeffers said the organization looks at 200-300 dogs to every one dog that they deem a service dog candidate. The dog has to demonstrate a certain level of focus and eagerness to learn in order to be considered for service. The dog’s training alone can take up to 14 months.
“It’s important that we get the dogs as early as possible,” Jeffers said. “The dog must be able to work in a minimum of three-hour segments and respond to roughly 25 commands, including block, wait and release.”
Once trained, an eligible veteran applicant is selected and is put through a familiarization process with the dog, which can take three to six months.
One of Many Treatment Options
“When you think about PTSD in terms of the symptom clusters (avoidance, intrusive, negative thoughts/emotions and hyper arousal) the ways in which a dog can help are many,” said Dr. Chalisa Gadt-Johnson, a licensed psychologist who works at the Topeka VA Medical Center. “The companionship is great for those who feel a sense of isolation, along with helping with those who may be avoiding people and/or places.”
While Gunther has helped him, Babcock acknowledged that a service dog may not be the best treatment option for all. Gadt-Johnson said there are other treatment options including peer-to-peer, group and peer-to-counselor counseling, which can teach better coping strategies. The VA Hospital in Topeka offers many education groups and treatment programs for substance abuse, addiction and psychiatric disorders, including a seven-week inpatient stress disorder treatment program, open to affected service members and veterans from around the country.
PTSD is not a new affliction, nor is it new to the Kansas National Guard, but for those suffering in silence, Babcock shared this advice.
“The first step in reclaiming your quality of life is to seek out help,” he said. “There are a lot of veterans and service members struggling with PTSD every day. We think the only solution is avoidance, isolation, drinking, drugs or even suicide. Sometimes the biggest step is admitting to ourselves that we can’t do it on our own, putting our pride aside and asking others for help.”
Babcock added, “I was afraid to take that first step. But now that I have, I wish I’d done it sooner. I’m starting to feel more in control of my life. My battle buddy, Gunther, is by my side, helping me get through the rough spots in my day. I don’t know what I’d do without him, but it took admitting that I needed help in order to get where I am today.”