SANTA CRUZ, Calif. - Since 2009, Devon has served as Tori Stitt's lifeline to the world.
That year, she and the 7-year-old golden retriever were matched up through the Wounded Warrior Project, a nonprofit that advocates for injured service members and provides direct assistance to help them reintegrate into society.
Still suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, Stitt is hesitant to speak in depth about her wartime experiences, but says her loyal canine companion "can detect anxiety in me. When we're in crowds, he creates a barrier between the crowds and myself to make me feel a little bit more at ease."
The pairing came about a year after she returned from a yearlong deployment to Iraq that ended in 2007. As a Navy lieutenant, she was assigned to train staff members on how to recognize and defuse improvised explosive devices, homemade bombs that have been used extensively against U.S. and coalition forces overseas.
During that deployment, while working in the field, she saw many of her trainees injured and killed, leaving deep emotional and psychological scars that have yet to heal. But she was left with physical wounds as well, including a traumatic brain injury from the repeated concussive blasts that have left thousands of soldiers similarly disabled.
In 2008, she returned to her base in San Diego and, the next year, received Devon through the Assistance Service Dog Educational Center. Founded in 2002, the Woodlake, Calif.-based nonprofit specializes in training dogs to help people with disabilities, including veterans suffering from persistent post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Before I got him, I wouldn't go out," recalled Stitt, a Tampa, Fla., resident who recently moved to Santa Cruz from San Diego, Calif., where she spent two years working as a veteran's case manager. "I would isolate. I would only go out if necessary. I would drink a lot, and I couldn't handle being out in the regular community. I was having uncontrollable nightmares that I couldn't deal with throughout the day."
But that isolation has eased over the past few years, ever since Devon came into her life. She finds herself interacting with people more as she takes her furry companion out for regular walks, and "opening up a lot more about my experiences."
Rachel Boyd met Stitt and Devon about four months ago, when their paths crossed at Long Marine Lab in Santa Cruz. Boyd was intrigued when, during the course of their conversation, Stitt revealed she was a combat veteran, and they became fast friends.
The two women recently noticed a growth on Devon's left front paw, so Boyd took him to see Dr. David Shuman at the Santa Cruz Westside Animal Hospital. It turned out to be a skin tumor. Surgery to remove it typically would cost between $1,200 and $1,500, but Shuman donated his services for the surgery. The mass was then shipped off to a lab for further testing.
On Monday, it was found to be benign.
There are still the post-surgery expenses, including bandages and other items that Shuman estimated can cost anywhere from $100 to $500.
"We have a lot of mentally delicate clients, and their pets really anchor them to the planet," he added. "The importance these pets have is immeasurable."
And the community recognized that, stepping forward and donating about $8,000.
Devon was back in Shuman's care Monday, getting his sutures removed and paw rebandaged.
"As soon as the skin heals and we make sure everything's covered over, it's a done deal," Shuman said.
Meanwhile, the funds donated over the weekend have been set aside in a client account.
"He should be a very well cared for dog for the rest of his life," Shuman said.
Before she joined the Navy, Stitt received a bachelor's degree in biology, then a master's in psychology and a certificate in substance abuse counseling in 2010. Seven months ago, she started a management training program through Safeway, which operates a branch of the program specifically for service members.
"I'd never really gotten a chance to talk to anyone about what it's like out there (in Iraq)," Boyd said, recalling her initial conversations with Stitt. She "really started opening up about what it's like for a soldier to carry around an AK-47 and sleep with it."
Devon, Boyd said, has "literally saved her life. She has these incredible flashback dreams in the middle of the night," and when Devon senses she's reliving an IED blast, "he licks her face. He prevents her from reliving that whole experience in her nightmares."