On his journey to healing Matthew found a four-legged battle buddy who has given him some of his life back. In 2003, the Army came home injured from deployment in Tikrit. He was isolated, grappling with emotional wounds, and struggling to bring his life back to where it was before he left.
A noble pursuit
Matthew was a member of the Army ROTC in college. He planned to graduate and begin his Army career as an officer, but found himself eager to begin his service. After two years of schooling he made the switch to active duty.
“I felt fulfillment in helping people who had no voice,” he says. “I wanted to make a difference in the world.”
Out of the jobs Matthew was offered, the Army veteran elected to train as a MOS 62B construction equipment repairer.
“I enjoyed it,” he says. “I picked up a skill I didn’t have before.”
Matthew deployed to Tikrit, Iraq in 2003. Being away from family was particularly hard on him, but his commitment to service kept him strong.
“I knew this was what I signed up for,” he says.
The Army veteran’s responsibilities in Tikrit were numerous and necessary.
“When you’re a mechanic you kind of do it all,” he reflects. “I made sure everything was mission ready.”
Matthew was injured in May 2003. He was sent to Fort Knox for recovery, then back to his hometown of Detroit where he could be closer to his family during the passing of his grandfather. After a series of moves Matthew was sent to Fort McCoy in Wisconsin where he later received an honorable discharge.
The battle back home
When Matthew returned home to Detroit he found himself facing new challenges. Like many veterans, he was trying to transition to life as a civilian while figuring out how to cope with all he endured during his deployment.
“[I] felt a lot of guilt because I wasn’t able to finish with my guys,” he shares, “and I lost one of my guys who I served with.”
Understanding his feelings was especially challenging since the Army veteran was not aware he had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“I struggle with PTSD today,” Matthew says. “I didn’t even know what PTSD was at the time.”
Without a way to explain how he felt or a name to describe his condition, Matthew says he felt “lost.”
“It was bad,” he says, “I came home and I was isolated.”
Despite his struggles, Matthew found love. He married and became a father, but stability ebbed and flowed. Living with the chronic pain of PTSD made holding on to jobs – and managing marriage and home life – all the more difficult.
Out of desperation Matthew began to drink to alleviate his suffering.
“I was spiraling out of control,” he confesses.
The Army veteran realized that and turned to the Veterans Administration for guidance. He was diagnosed with PTSD and began to learn about healthy ways to cope with his symptoms. Matthew started therapy and has not stopped since. At the time he had no idea that a four-legged battle buddy would come into his life and accelerate his hard-won progress.
Matthew has come a long way and is currently in school studying to be a paralegal. He hopes to someday help other veterans experiencing legal trouble. He is engaged to a woman with a daughter the same age as his own and feels more like himself again.
Four-legged battle buddy to the rescue
Matthew’s therapist believed that the Army veteran might benefit from a service animal. Even though Pets for Patriots focuses on adopting at-risk companion animals who typically do not have the attitude or aptitude for service, a veteran who adopted through our program suggested Matthew give us a try.
In June 2017 Matthew found Grace through our partnership with Friends for Animals of Metro Detroit. Since 2015 the shelter offers veterans in our program a 50% adoption fee discount for dogs and reduced adoption fee of $5 for cats, in addition to other benefits.
Grace is a brindle Plott Hound-Labrador mix and not at all the kind of dog Matthew desired to adopt.
“I wanted a purebred,” he says.
The Army veteran soon realized those qualities did not really matter. He could relate to Grace and she seemed to relate to him.
“I felt like she was lost,” he says. “She’s been through a lot.”
Grace had kennel cough when she was in the shelter. Matthew says she looked “sad” and “thin.”
“She wasn’t really her full self even when I met her,” he says. “She’s a totally, completely different dog than when we got her.”
Now that Grace has comfortably settled into Matthew’s family, her true playful spirit has emerged and revealed some endearing quirks.
“She has a funny run, she prances like a deer… it’s very unique,” Matthew laughs.
Grace has even learned new ways to play with her family.
“She didn’t play fetch before, now she does,” he says.
Lost and found
Grace now knows much more than fetch. She is currently being trained as Matthew’s service animal. Although this is rarely possible when adopting a pet from a shelter, some animals have the right demeanor for service. Grace is one of those dogs that just cannot wait to work.
“She gets excited when I go grab her vest and her leash. She’s dancing,” Matthew says.
The pair travels from Detroit to Chicago for training. Whenever they leave, Matthew’s eight-year old girls tell him they miss their “Gracie.”
“When I’m gone, my girls are missing her because she is not there,” he says.
Matthew is glad that he has committed to train his four-legged battle buddy, even if it means he has to occasionally leave home. Before adopting, it was difficult and sometimes impossible for the Army veteran to attend sporting events, concerts, the mall, or even the store. Now that Grace is there to calm him and keep a watchful eye, Matthew feels at ease.
“She watches my back and she helps my anxiety come down,” he says. “I can be places… [places] that I used to avoid. With her, now I go to those places.”
Adoption saves two at a time
Matthew hopes veterans remain open to adoption as a way to heal, and that civilians give what they can to help veterans like him receive and give a second chance at life.
“I read other veteran’s stories through Pets for Patriots,” he says, “and I identify with their stories.”
Matthew is among many veterans served through our program who are living with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other emotional challenges. Each story tells the tale of a person who found the unique, healing capacity that only a four-legged battle buddy can deliver. And it matters little if that furry therapist is a dog or a cat; companion pets are natural healers.
For Matthew and Grace, the transformation has flowed both ways. Adoption always saves two lives.
“She’s helped me get my life back, as far as some of the things I used to do,” Matthew says. “I believe I’ve given her a sense of purpose.”