Dogs are everybody’s best friend. But for some combat veterans they are much, much more—service dogs are saving their lives.
“I was in a dark, dark place,” says McLean Raybon, an Army veteran from Texas who suffers from PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI). “I was ugly to my wife and family, I was at the end of the line. I couldn’t see beyond my own guilt and what I witnessed.”
McLean attempted to overdose on pills; thankfully, he was able to get to a VA hospital and get the lifesaving care he needed. While at the hospital, he met a fellow veteran with a service dog and after sharing stories, the man suggested K9 for Warriors might help him deal with his trauma through the aid of a service dog. McLean applied and was paired with Merrick by K9 for Warriors, a program that trains service dogs to help wounded veterans struggling with a variety of disabilities. Merrick’s namesake is derived from Merrick Pet Care, which sponsored his training.
McLean’s wife Kerrin says, “He just shut down, mentally [and] physically. He was there, but he wasn’t there. Just to get him to go anywhere was a struggle.”
Kerrin says McLean’s life was completely transformed after he was paired with Merrick. “Merrick brings the happiness out in McLean, the person I knew that he was prior.”
“Of our country’s 21.8 million veterans, one in five suffers from PTSD and struggle to return to civilian life,” says Shari Duval, president of K9s for Warriors. “Because of partners like Merrick, we’re able to give those warriors a chance to see the world again and build a life after combat, as well as educate more people about the important role service dogs play in improving veterans’ lives.”
In addition to PTSD, the suicide rate among veterans is on the rise—one VA study found that more than 22 veterans a day commit suicide. McLean wants to help reduce that number and believes that a loveable canine companion can help. Only recently have the benefits of service dogs gained mainstream attention, yet according to American Humane, they began using dogs to help veterans returning from World War II with PTSD as early as 1945.
Coping with Guilt
Merrick’s therapeutic benefits extend well beyond waking McLean from his night terrors or assisting him when he’s in a crowded place. Merrick allows him to cope with the crushing weight of guilt that many veterans feel as a consequence of serving in war.
“After getting Merrick, I’ve been able to crack open my shell, and reach out to other soldiers that I served with,” says McLean, “and that’s helped me to deal with my own demons. I’ve lost more than a few guys I served with that committed suicide and I deal with the guilt at having not helped them in some way.”
Merrick knows when Mclean is feeling distressed, and nudges him with his nose or stepping on his foot to disrupt the cascade of guilt that sends Mclean down the rabbit hole. The high level of training as well as the structured bonding time that K9 for Warriors implements allows Merrick to read cues and know when to intervene and assist.
A service dog can help in ways a human might not be able to, such as doing what dogs love to do—play.
When not “on duty,” Merrick loves to chase cows—galloping and darting back and forth. McLean gets a good laugh from his antics. He also likes to get in the back of his pickup truck and just ride around. And when they go fishing, you guessed it, Merrick takes a big ol’ leap into the water and loves to swim.
The Main Message
McLean is enthusiastic about advocating service dogs for other veterans, even organizing a fundraising event to raise awareness of the benefits. “I did a crawfish boil [and] more than 500 people, mostly veterans, attended,” says McLean. “I talked a lot about the benefits of a service dog and showed them what Merrick could do.” McLean raised enough money to cover the event and donate to Warriors Weekend, a non-profit that organizes an annual fishing event for wounded military personnel. In addition, McLean says he was also able to put together care packages for buddies that are still over in Afghanistan.
McLean’s message is to-the-point: Wounded veterans don’t have to needlessly suffer. “Get help,” he says. “Don’t just rely on medication to alleviate your PTSD. There are additional options out there that can also change your life.”