How a Service Dog Helped One Veteran with PTSD Get His Life Back

Military veteran Andrew Vincelette suffered from debilitating PTSD until hope and healing arrived in the form of a furry, four-legged friend named Doc.

The Vincelette Family with DocA recent family photo of Andrew, Danielle, the girls, and Doc, Andrew's service dog.A few days after the 9/11 attacks and barely a week after his 23rd birthday, Andrew Vincelette arrived at Prince Sultan Air Base in Saudi Arabia. As an Air Force Munitions Systems Specialist, he was tasked with making sure that US military’s missiles and bombs were ready to go. Within weeks, the ordnances would be loaded onto US military aircraft making bombing runs on Afghanistan. “The stock of weapons had to be built up and replenished constantly,” says Andrew.

Every day, Andrew and his fellow soldiers drove on open roads through a barren landscape to a location about 30 minutes from the base where the bombs were stored. Away from the relative safety of the base, the young soldiers felt exposed, he says. Along the way, they’d see men with rifles slung over their shoulder or sticking out from under their thobes, the traditional white tunics worn in Saudi Arabia.

Andrew remembers one excruciatingly hot day when a female colleague, wearing a t-shirt, was harassed by Saudi soldiers. Andrew defended her. In a region where tensions ran high, that incident wasn’t the only unpleasantness. “We were taunted and belittled constantly,” Andrew remembers. “I was spit on twice.” 

After his deployment to Saudi Arabia ended, Andrew rotated back to the States and remained happily stationed at Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina until 2004, the completion of his four-year enlistment. At that point he returned home to Rouses Point, New York near the Canadian border.

After the Air Force

Life went on. In 2009, while working as a dispatcher for the railroad, he met Danielle, his future wife, online. “He was such a loving, warm person,” says Danielle, now 38, a middle school special education teacher.  The couple had much in common including their height. Andrew is 6’7”; Danielle is 6’5”.  “When I first told him my height, he didn’t believe me,” says Danielle. “I said, ‘Who would make up being 6’5” tall’”? They married on June 26, 2011.

In 2012, after the birth of their first child, Zoe, now six, Andrew landed a job with the Transit Safety Administration (TSA) at Burlington (Vermont) International Airport. Although the one-hour commute was tiring, his early morning schedule allowed him to spend more time with Zoe and his beloved father, Alan. A Vietnam Veteran and retired Marine Corps officer, Captain Alan Vincelette had sworn his son into the Air Force in 2000.  

When his father became ill, Andrew and Danielle moved him next door to their home. Andrew relished the time with his father. He was “my battle buddy, my best friend and my all-around support,” says Andrews. Then in April of 2013 his father died. Andrew was shattered.  “My father meant the world to me,” he says. The loss of his father coupled with an incident at the airport triggered Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Called to a security checkpoint, Andrew came face-to-face with a man whose identification said he was born in Saudi Arabia.

Andrew remembers little of what happened after the moment.  “I saw that and suddenly I couldn’t breathe. I thought I was having a heart attack,” he says. Andrew called security for help. At some point, he blacked out and ended up being rushed to the ER by ambulance.

It wasn’t a heart attack; it was a full-blown panic attack, the first of many and the beginning of his downward spiral into the hell of PTSD.

The Hell of PTSD

PTSD doesn’t follow a set timetable. It can come on days, weeks, months or years after a traumatic event. For some, it creeps up slowly; for others, like Andrew, it erupts like a volcano.

Over the next two years, the once cheerful, outgoing husband and father of two—his daughter Ava was born in 2014—became increasingly anxious and depressed. He couldn’t continue working for the TSA. After the VA officially diagnosed him with PTSD, he went on full disability staying home with his daughters while Danielle continued teaching.

Hypervigilance--characteristic of PTSD--dictated his daily routine. Even within the safety of his home, he was perpetually on guard. Every sound signaled a potential danger that he needed to investigate. Installing a high-tech security system with multiple cameras didn’t lessen his urge to patrol the perimeter.  It was an exhausting way to live.

He isolated himself, avoiding the outside world as much as possible. He couldn’t pick his daughter up after school. Venturing out, be it for a trip to the supermarket or to see a doctor required careful planning. On days when Danielle cajoled him to accompany her and the girls to the mall or grocery shopping, he inevitably waited in the car. Crowds were out of the question. Tolerating a small gathering for more than a few minutes was too difficult. Danielle scheduled doctor’s appointments early in the morning before the waiting room filled up. She became his buffer. She guarded his back, warning him if someone was coming up behind him. She steered him away from any potentially-anxiety producing person or situation. As much as she shielded and protected him, she couldn’t stop the panic attacks that leveled him, sometimes multiple times in a day.

Nights were no better. When exhaustion overcame insomnia, his sleep was frequently plagued with night terrors that pummeled him awake, shaking with rage and the devastating fear that in the throes of a terror he might unknowingly and unwillingly lash out at his wife. Some nights, in a fitful sleep, he’d scratch his hands until they bled.

PTSD mangled his short-term memory. Days and events blurred. Danielle created a dry whiteboard system writing down everything and anything he had to do each day.   

To manage his PTSD, and severe gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a digestive disease that is exacerbated by stress, Andrew was prescribed upwards of 30 daily medications that included anti-anxiety, anti-depressant, and pain medications such as sertraline (Zoloft), duloxetine (Cymbalta), valproic acid (Depakote), lorazepam (Ativan), diazepam (Valium) and quetiapine (Seroquel). The drugs made his weight balloon to 300 pounds, putting added stress on his back and knees. “I could barely hold myself up,” he says.  

Hope on Four Legs

Andrew and DocAndrew enjoying a beautiful day with his K9Warriors service dog, DocAndrew was desperate and in despair when a counselor at the Veteran’s Administration urged him to consider getting a service dog. After talking it over with Danielle and with her support, Andrew reached out to K9s For Warriors. “They had a year-long waiting list,” he says. Andrew persevered, filling out “endless forms and paperwork.” Finally, K9s told him they had a dog for him. On November 29, 2015, Andrew arrived at the organization’s facility in Ponte Vedra, Florida for a three-week full immersion training camp where he and other veterans had time to bond with and learn how to handle their canine pals. The timing was critical. “I had reached the point of wanting to check out of this world—thinking that my wife and kids were better off without me. [K9s] was a last-ditch effort.”

 Founded in 2011 by the mother of a PTSD sufferer, the nonprofit matches dogs—95% are rescued from shelter—with post 9/11 veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military-related sexual trauma. The dogs undergo lengthy and extensive training before being paired with a veteran. Other than the round trip transportation to Florida to attend the training camp, there’s no cost to the veterans. (The cost to train a service dog is approximately $27,000.)

After three weeks and 120 hours of hands-on training with Doc, the three-year-old Borzoi Lab mix that would be his constant and devoted protector and companion, Andrew headed home feeling hopeful and bolstered by the camaraderie of his camp classmates and the abundant support of the K9s trainers and volunteers. Danielle and the girls immediately fell in love with Doc’s striking blue eyes, silky white coat and sweet personality.

Paws not Pills

Day by day, with Doc at his side and behind him, guarding his six (a military reference that means watching your buddy's back)  Andrew’s life has changed and continues to change for the better. “I’m now able to do so many things I couldn’t do before,” says Andrew. “He gets me out of the house. I’m able to attend events for my kids where before I would have stayed home.” Now, he and Doc go food shopping. “It may not sound like much but that never happened before Doc."

When they are out Doc uses his body to create a barrier that prevents people from physically getting too close to Andrew. ”He alerts me when people are approaching me from behind,” explains Andrew. And when Doc senses Andrew’s stress level or anxiety increasing, he nudges, pushes or pulls Andrew away from situations that might trigger a panic attack. And he’s persistent. “He’ll keep at it until I pay attention to him,” says Andrew. To keep Andrew calm, Doc will “love” on him, nuzzling and kissing him, putting his paw on Andrew and whining if ignored. When Andrew has night terrors, Doc wakes him up.  And after Andrew’s down on the floor playing with his daughters, if he needs help getting up, Doc stiffens his body, allowing Andrew to use him as a brace to help him stand.

Like 92% of K9s For Warriors graduates, Andrew reports a reduction in medication. Thanks to Doc, he is off all but four medications: clonazepam (Klonopin) for panic, quetiapine (Seroquel) for depression, pantoprazole (to control stomach acid) and ibuprofen (for aches and pains). And he’s lost 50 pounds. He’s more active than he’s been in years. He’s a happy stay at home Dad who’s able to pick Zoe up from school. Today Andrew can participate in all the wonderful everyday activities that families share.

Andrew isn’t “cured” of PTSD. A couple of weeks ago, during a night terror, he broke the lamp next to his bed. Doc was out cold on the floor next to Andrew's bed after a particularly strenuous day. Dogs, like humans, have good days and bad days, says Andrew. “And service dogs like Doc are on 24/7,” he says. Andrew still gets triggered by scents and sounds and images. Danielle limits his news and movie watching to avoid flashbacks. His short-term memory isn’t good. “The brain doesn’t work the way it used to,” says Andrew. And sometimes he still feels the need to patrol the house, to make sure all the windows and doors are locked. 

 Doc and Andrew are celebrating their second anniversary together in December.  Thanks to Doc and the love and support of his wife, his in-laws and family, he’s “more himself than he’s been in years,” says Danielle.  “He smiles. He laughs. He’s happy,” she says.

Updated on: 11/21/17
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