To look at Mya P.*, you’d never know she was a U.S. Army veteran, let alone a combat medic who once spent her days tending to Iraqi detainees while under the threat of attack. The soft-spoken 29 year old barely clears five feet in height and exudes a quiet, gentle demeanor as she interacts with the other veterans and store patrons around her. “As a soldier, you don’t want people to see your soft side,” she said.
You would also never know by looking at Mya’s bright smile and ease in front of the camera that only months earlier she was spending most days isolated in her room, that she hated having her picture taken, and that she couldn’t bear to be around large crowds of people without the buffer of—literally—a mask: During her hometown’s Veteran’s Day parade this year, she donned a lion mascot costume as a layer of protection in order to attend. “Military holidays are harder than others,” she said. “I was scared to be around people; [the costume] made me feel more comfortable to be there.”
Mya suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition caused (in simple terms) by experiencing a life-threatening or traumatic event such as combat exposure, assault, an accident, or a natural disaster. The long-term effects of PTSD can make it difficult to resume a “normal” life once the trauma is over; nightmares, withdrawal, emotional numbness, and hyperarousal are all common experiences for those who have the condition.
Fortunately for Mya, the future is beginning to look a bit brighter: She is the latest beneficiary of Train a Dog, Save a Warrior (TADSAW), a San Antonio-based group that trains qualified shelter dogs as service animals, matching them with veterans who suffer from PTSD. The program was co-founded by Patsy Swendson and Bart Sherwood of San Antonio and is funded solely by private donations; services are provided free of charge to the veterans enrolled. Mya arrived in San Antonio from South Carolina two weeks earlier to meet and train with her new service dog, a 13-month-old chocolate Labradoodle named Watson. The two have been inseparable since.
Mya admits to having been suicidal after returning from Iraq, going as far as planning how she would carry out the act. That’s when she contacted TADSAW for help. “I called Bart [Sherwood, TADSAW co-founder] and it gave me something to hope for,” she said. Mya explained that she managed her anxiety leading up to her arrival in San Antonio “by going from light pole to light pole—setting little goals along the way. I told myself, ‘Now I’m going to pack my suitcase. Now I’m going to get on a plane.’ Setting these little goals gave me confidence to keep moving forward.”
To her point, after Watson enthusiastically noses his bowl of water, splashing it onto the floor, Mya opens her waist pack and rifles through the contents, finally pulling out a packet of tissues. “I carry these with me everywhere I go, just in case I start crying,” she said. “But since I arrived here and got Watson, I’ve only had to use them for spills…my cheek muscles are sore from smiling. ” This milestone might sound like a simple thing to most, but it marks a gigantic step forward in Mya’s recovery—and she knows it.
Watson has a special story himself: He was a flunk-out from Texas A&M’s Aggie Guide Dogs and Service Dogs program—not because of his skills (or lack thereof), but because of his height. Although he was not the right fit for a guide or mobility dog, his exceptional temperament and desire to please made him an ideal match for the TADSAW program. With the help of a trainer from the Animal Behavior College, Watson has become the perfect companion for Mya, able to anticipate her needs, act as a buffer when she goes out in public, and offer her comfort when she needs it most. “[When I met Watson], I was crying happy tears. He ‘hugged’ me—put his paws on my shoulders—and licked them off,” she smiled. “He’s opened doors in a lot of ways.”
Watching Mya and Watson, it is hard to believe that the two have known each other for only two weeks. Their bond is palpable. As they make the rounds of the sporting goods store where they will be testing their skills for certification, they are completely in tune with each others’ body language; Watson never stops looking at Mya for direction, while Mya deftly leads him through the components of his test, anticipating obstacles and reinforcing good behavior along the way.
Bob Morrison has witnessed the astounding changes in Mya since her arrival in San Antonio. He and his wife agreed to host the Army veteran in their home during her stay, giving her a break from the isolation of a hotel room. “When she arrived, she wouldn’t let people get close to her, and now she’s hugging them. We went to karaoke last night, and she’s gotten to talk to Vietnam vets. It’s like watching a flower blossom,” he marveled.
As a war veteran and beneficiary of TADSAW, Morrison knows first-hand how life saving a service dog can be. “I don’t know why my wife stayed with me,” he admitted, as he described the struggles he experienced with his anger and emotions after his military service. Since training his dog Molly through TADSAW, Morrison said, he has “stayed out of trouble” primarily because Molly has been able to sense his increased anxiety, leaning on him when he raises his voice. “I can’t get into trouble now, because who’s going to take care of my dog?” he laughed.
With Watson now by her side, Mya has big plans for her return home to South Carolina. She hopes to resume her volunteer work through her church and at an area juvenile detention center. “They have a place called the ‘Store of Hope,’ where they sell things [made by the juvenile inmates]. I had to stop volunteering there because it made me nervous, but now I have Watson so I can come back,” she smiled. Mya also aspires to mentor some of the juvenile inmates, using her own experience to offer them hope as they go through rehabilitation. “They need someone to listen to them; a dog can listen [where others can’t],” she said. “If I can plant a seed, maybe they will remember this little girl and her dog.”
Though Mya knows that her road to recovery will not always be a smooth one, she can’t help but feel optimistic as she contemplates her life going forward. Accompanied by her new canine companion, the world seems much less frightening and the day-to-day struggles much more manageable. She returns home knowing that, in addition to her family and friends, her newfound support system in Texas will be with her every step of the way. “My ‘squad’ is [made up of] these people; they’re here to help however they can. They might not wear a uniform, but they are there for me,” Mya said. “Part of TADSAW’s motto is ‘Save a Warrior,’ and that’s exactly what they’ve done: They’ve saved me.”
For more information about Train a Dog, Save a Warrior, visit www.tadsaw.org.