Souls Comforted: Rescued Dogs Matched With Veterans In Need Of Support
Linda Ledbeter’s new foster dog has been completely shut down. Renamed Josie after being rescued from a shelter, she had to get out of the car, climb the steps and enter Ledbeter’s house near Plymouth.
Josie, a lab mix, had a crooked tail, as did about half of her puppies. They were all rescued from the shelter.
So when Pam Wittkopp stood in Ledbeter’s living room and told her that Josie would be a great fit for her organization – Dogs2DogTags – Ledbeter was understandably cynical.
Dogs2DogTags is a Sheboygan Falls-based organization that pairs veterans with rescue dogs and humanitarian companies or through donation. The dogs go through a month-long training process where they are taught how to help veterans with mental illness.
“(Veterans are) faced with night terrors, they can’t eat, loud noises scare them,” Wittkopp said. “The dog stop this.”
As the Executive Director of Dogs2DogTags, Wittkopp has seen her fair share of dogs transformed during the training process. But the changes in veterans who bond with these dogs are equally striking.
âHonestly, I don’t know where I would be without him right now because of the things I’ve been through recently,â said Ric Daus, 35, a veteran who has had to deal with anxiety, depression and disorder. post-traumatic stress disorder after returning from service in Bagram, Afghanistan.
Daus toured Afghanistan from approximately March 2005 to May 2006. He worked as a light equipment operator, licensed to drive and work on US Army four-wheel drive vehicles. Its tasks included demining and road construction, demining areas and resupplying bases.
While on a mission, Daus’ unit was tasked with finding a way to extend a route through a mountain pass between Islamabad, Pakistan and Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in the northeast sector, which Daus took qualified as “very bad area”. The pass was wide enough for vehicles to cross, but not wide enough to turn around.
“Our mission was to go over there to see where we could lay out in the mountain to enlarge this pass so that those vehicles that kept being attacked or blown from the mountain wouldn’t do it anymore”, a- he declared.
But the humvees that were sent were too wide and were forced to retreat.
âI was taken off the mission at the last minute and someone else went instead and my humvee was blown up the mountain,â he said. Four people died, including the man who replaced Daus who was engaged and had a child.
âI did not have children at the time,â said Daus. “It made me feel like s —.”
Getting shot, losing friends and being repeatedly bombed and mortared left Daus with feelings of resentment, anger, anxiety, and PTSD. He tried to seek help upon his return home, but said he had waited months and no follow-up recommendations were made for his treatment.
Daus temporarily turned to alcohol and drugs. He returned to school, but the challenges resurfaced while he was in a “physically and mentally abusive relationship,” he said.
âThen I got this golden ticket – I don’t know, that call from above – a friend of mine told me about (Wittkopp) and Dogs2DogTags,â he said.
A close link
Daus was paired with his dog Patton late last year, one of 28 dogs that have been placed with veterans since the operation began in 2015.
Patton is a great mix of the Pyrenees with a Dalmatian who traveled to Wisconsin from a refuge to kill Texas. He was afraid of his breeding and didn’t like people.
âDogs2DogTags has done almost everything,â said Daus of New Holstein. âHe loves people now. He’s so in sync with me that the first time we met he leaned on me. He already knew he loved me. It just seemed like he knew that. we were meant to be together. “
Torre Willadsen saw this direct emotional impact dogs had on soldiers while he was in Afghanistan in 2012. He was there to help train officers on how to handle dogs for bombs in roadside.
One of the soldiers who was seriously injured by an improvised explosive device woke up after 10 days and immediately called for his dog, recalled Willadsen, founder and president of Dogs2DogTags.
âMy fight to get him his dog that he deployed with then turned into (wanting to) try to get the dogs to the rest of the guys,â he said.
But then, after the battalion he worked with returned, suicides started to become more common among veterans. The suicide crisis affecting veterans claimed 115 lives in Wisconsin in 2018, according to the most recent report from the US Department of Veterans Affairs. Nationally, 6,435 veterans died by suicide in 2018.
âWhen a veteran thinks about that final act, we want him to see his dog,â Wittkopp said. “We want them to remember the community that has supported them and to know that they have a reason to give it another day.”
Recalling the impact dogs have had on veterans overseas, Willadsen hoped that pairing U.S. veterans with dogs might help. Dogs2DogTags was born.
Working with dogs
Willadsen said there are certain characteristics and personality traits that make some dogs more suited to the program. Dogs with a history of biting are not taken into account.
âWhen we find an animal that works, we train it through it,â he said. “He is going through our certification while we are looking for a veteran.”
The size of the dogs is more varied. Willadsen said the program resulted in small pit bull mixes weighing around 35 to 40 pounds. Another dog currently in training, Oliver, weighs around 100 pounds.
Once the dogs are matched with their veterans, the organization continues to provide support. Dog food is chargeable for one year. Medical expenses are fully covered and the organization will house the dogs if the veterans are going through a difficult time or if they go on vacation, for example.
âDogs need to be well taken care of, so that they can take good care of their veterans,â Ledbeter said.
Dogs2DogTags is raising funds for a kennel and training center. Without facilities at the moment, the dogs are looked after by host families during the night and on weekends. The dogs are trained during the day.
âWe train our foster families on how we want them to train the dogs as well,â Wittkopp said.
Dogs are in training from 18 weeks to eight months. Three dogs are currently in training, but Wittkopp said having a training and boarding facility would dramatically increase that.
Veterans interested in the program can apply online.