SANTA CRUZ -- 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. 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-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, where she spent two years working as a veterans 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."
Santa Cruz resident Rachel Boyd met Stitt and Devon about four months ago, when their paths crossed at Long Marine Lab on Delaware Avenue 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 is donating his services for the surgery scheduled for early Wednesday? morning. The mass will then be shipped off to a lab for further testing, with results expected within the week.
"If it comes back as malignant, depending on what it is, surgery could be curative," Shuman said. But "if it's a high-grade malignancy treatable with chemotherapy and radiation, that's where a lot more expenses are incurred."
After the surgery
Then there are the post-surgery expenses, including bandages and other items that Shuman estimated can cost anywhere from $100-$500. No matter what, "we're going to do the surgery because it's the right thing to do," he said, but he's hoping the community will donate funds to help offset whatever other costs Stitt may incur to save her faithful friend's life.
Whatever funds are donated will be used to cover her expenses as a result of the surgery, and any extra funds will be used for future pet care, he said.
"We have a lot mentally delicate clients and their pets really anchor them to the planet," he added. "The importance these pets have is immeasurable."
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 Tuesday, 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."
How to help
Canine companion in need
What: Devon, a 7-year-old golden retriever, will undergo surgery to remove a tumor early Wednesday morning at the Santa Cruz Westside Animal Hospital.
Cost: Dr. David Shuman is donating the cost of the services, but more funds are needed for post-surgery care, as well as possible chemotherapy or radiation.
To donate: Send a check to Santa Cruz Westside Animal Hospital, 411 Laurel St., Santa Cruz, CA 95060, and write 'Devon Stitt' in the memo field.
For more information: 831-427-2239