Veteran and dog

Army Veteran John Hairston with his dog, Merle.

Imagine storming through a foreign country, searching for an enemy who is looking for you. Consider seeing a friend at breakfast and planning his funeral by lunch. Think about not seeing loved ones for months at a time. These heart-wrenching scenarios are only a fraction of the turmoil many soldiers encounter throughout their fights for freedom.

Often those returning from the battlefield elect to keep their stories inside for days, weeks, months, years and decades. Some take their memories of wartime to the grave.

It’s difficult to verbalize traumatic memories, so many veterans turn to self-medicating methods, such as drugs and alcohol, instead of talking with others about the images plaguing their minds.

Some veterans eventually win the wars raging in their minds, but many don’t. An average of 20 veterans commit suicide each day, according to a 2016 study published by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

Jenny East Cole’s brother was one of those 20 people. Two decades after he returned from service in the Marines in the Vietnam War, her brother took his own life.

With a long military background, with East Cole’s father serving in the Air Force for 20 years, the family questioned what led to this tragedy.

“We asked, how could we have helped and changed things?” East Cole said.

She said that question remained on her mind, especially when she took therapy dogs to visit people who also encountered struggles.

“The therapy dogs help in so many ways. We visit hospitals, nursing homes and children with autism,” East Cole said. “Their faces light up. There are amazing, magical moments with people and dogs.”

The encounters East Cole and her canine companions experienced sparked an idea. She cofounded The Veteran Project, a program dedicated to placing dogs with soldiers.

“It’s a great way for me to give back to veterans for their sacrifice,” East Cole said.

The program not only helps veterans find four-legged friends but also benefits dogs without homes.

“We go in the shelters and look for dogs with the right temperament,” East Cole said.

The perfect personality isn’t a set checklist of traits. Some veterans request lap dogs, content with sitting on the couch all day. Others want active dogs, who enjoy playtime and adventures.

The Veteran Project fosters shelter dogs for an average of two to three months. In that time, dogs learn basic obedience commands, proper house training, how to ride in a car, how to play with children and how share the house with other pets.

“Our dogs are not service dogs,” East Cole said, adding that service dogs require years of specialized training. “We have nice companion dogs or emotional support dogs for veterans.”

Having a pet around often increases productivity. A person who might typically sleep until the middle of the day gets an earlier start when a pet scratches at their bedside for breakfast. A veteran who would generally stay inside all day instead puts on his or her sandals to take the dog for a walk. Pets tend to get people up and moving.

“He holds me accountable. He gets me up in the morning,” John Hairston said of his dog, Merle.

East Cole connected Hairston with his canine companion through the Veteran Project, which helped bring the Army veteran out of a dark time in his life.

Serving from August of 1984 to June of 1991 and again in the National Guard from 2000 to 2002, Hairston saw combat in Desert Storm. When he left Saudi Arabia, Hairston said he got off of the plane and went straight on leave with no type of counseling or ways to transition into a peaceful way of life.

“I had a hard time getting along with people,” Hairston said. “I had nightmares and PTSD symptoms.”

“What happens to a lot of these veterans is they withdraw,” East Cole said. “They have a difficult time with relationships and going out in public.”

Having a friendly 4-legged companion helps people break the ice. East Cole said that people often comment on or ask to pet dogs they encounter while out and about, which leads to conversations with the owner.

“Pretty soon, you’re talking,” East Cole said.

There are also medical benefits to doing something as simple as interacting with a dog.

“Petting can bring down your stress levels,” East Cole said. “If you’ve had a bad dream, if you have high blood pressure, a high respiration rate or a high heart rate, it comes down. It really, physically helps.”

She also noted that the canines support their owners during the highs and lows of life.

“Dogs give unconditional love,” East Cole said. “They’re not going to judge veterans.”

The meaningful relationships often turn into unbreakable bonds.

“I can count on him,” Hairston said of Merle. “I can trust him all the time. He’s a great companion dog. He’s laidback and real loyal. It’s hard to get that from people.”

Honoring those in the military for the Fourth of July, the SPCA of Martinsville-Henry County will host a special adoption until 4 p.m. Saturday.

“We like to do an adoption special for the Fourth of July, but we wanted to do something different this year,” said Catherine Gupton, SPCA facility manager.

Upon an approved shelter application, dogs older than 4 four months of age, cats and kittens are free for any veteran showing proof of service identification.

“It’s our best form of ‘thank you’ we can give to someone putting their life on the line for our country,” Gupton said.

From playing tug-of-war to licking away tears, animals often sense and adapt to their owners’ states of mind. Having a loyal companion with which to share happy and difficult moments could enhance a service person’s life.

“They’re wonderful at reading moods,” Gupton said. “If you’re feeling alone and you’re missing that comradeship of other soldiers, it gives a little bit of that back.”

In tandem with offering veterans the companionship of a loyal friend, the Let Freedom Ring adoption special also helps the animals.

“We look at it as giving them independence and freedom from the shelter,” Gupton said. “We have a really wonderful shelter, but it’s not a home.”

The shelter typically closes for July 4 but will be open from noon to 4 p.m. on Thursday to accommodate those looking for a new friend to take part in the day’s festivities.

There’s also a special taking place at the shelter for non-service members through Saturday. Dogs 4 months and older are $25 each, and cats and kittens are $5 each.

“It’s the best thing you could do,” Hairston said. “It’s a love you get back. That’s what you need to get through hard times.”

Amie Knowles can be reached at amierknowles@gmail.com

Amie Knowles can be reached at amierknowles@gmail.com