CHESAPEAKE, Va. — Marine Sgt. Matthew Miller paid a high price for three combat tours in Afghanistan.
A blast from an improvised explosive device caused a traumatic brain injury. He has 90 percent loss of hearing. His legs required reconstructive surgery, and he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. At 28 years old, he's raising a 5-year-old boy on his own.
Medication is a big part of his life, and he hates it with a passion.
"I can't describe to you – when you're standing at your dresser and you have six or seven bottles there," he said. "With traumatic brain injury, you have problems remembering things. So you have post-it notes – take this before that."
Miller believes he's found an alternative to medication in a gangly, furball of a German Shepherd named Magnus. They are as inseparable as a Marine and his battle buddy.
Magnus can sense his master's moods and short-circuit an anxiety attack faster than a pill.
"They can lick your hand and snap you back into reality, so you don't have an outburst," Miller said.
Service dogs can keep strangers away from Miller's personal space, an important factor for many who suffer from combat stress. And well, he's just a good dog.
"He doesn't judge you. He's always at your side, giving you whatever help you need," he said.
He wants the government to recognize how Magnus and other dogs help combat-traumatized warriors in Hampton Roads and elsewhere. It can cost as much as $20,000 to train a service dog for mental health needs, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs does not pay for it, at least not yet.
The VA funds dog training for veterans with vision, hearing or mobility problems, but it wants to study how these dogs assist in dealing with the unseen wounds of war. The VA plans to award a study contract later this month or in February, said VA spokeswoman Gina Jackson. It will take 18 months, and the last veteran will be enrolled in fall 2015.
Jackson said the agency does not disagree with some accounts that mental health service dogs have improved the quality of life for some veterans, but it needs to determine that these dogs provide an actual medical benefit, and that will take more study.
For Miller and others suffering from battlefield trauma, help can't come soon enough.
Breaking the tension
Citizen K9 Dog Training and Agility is tucked away in a spacious suburb southeast of Chesapeake. It is run by Brandy Eggeman, who is doing a good turn for a handful of veterans who could otherwise not afford the training.
Magnus began training there last week, and Miller was there for the first day of school. While there, he met Air Force veteran Joshua George, who lives in the Great Bridge section of Chesapeake.
George's four-footed pal is Anubis, a red-and-black German shepherd who seemed remarkably calm for a 5-month-old pup. George said he has not been formally diagnosed with PTSD, but he suffers from generalized anxiety disorder, anger management problems, depression and insomnia. The 33-year-old is rated as 50 percent disabled.
George spent 27 months in Iraq and Afghanistan working with special operations. Like Miller, he wants less medication, not more.
"The biggest thing is when you get into anxiety situations," he said. "He breaks the tension. If you get amped up or excited, you can just stop. I can't. He can get between me and the situation that's causing it. Something that size jumps into your lap, you have to pay attention. Then I don't need to get upset anymore. I just need to play with the dog and enjoy myself."
Anubis is still growing into his frame, but he also protects George's personal space.
"I have a major issue with people coming up behind me," he said.
Challenge of training
As George and Miller chatted, dogs frolicked across the Citizen K9 site under the watchful eye of Eggeman, who said she is putting in 14- and 16-hour days to maintain her own business and take on a handful of extra cases like those of George and Miller.
She's doing it with the help of a veterinary hospital in Newport Beach, Calif., which has started a fund to train mental health service dogs. Miller first told his story to WTKR news, and that got the hospital's attention, Eggeman said.
Finding a reputable trainer can be a challenge. George looked all over Virginia and approached a school in the D.C. area, only to find out he was outside their service area. Miller scoured the Internet for several weeks, hitting several dead ends before finding Eggeman's school.
Eggeman assesses a dog's demeanor, how it reacts to being in public, to loud noises and its general willingness to adapt to new situations. The training can be very specialized.
A dog can be trained to wake up a veteran who suffers from nightmares –even turning on a light in the bedroom. Someone who suffers from memory loss can depend on a dog to find the car in a big parking lot or locate a set of keys. Eggeman, who offers basic obedience courses and also trained search-and-rescue dogs, said the cost of training reflects the time she puts in.
Working the long hours doesn't even scratch the surface of the demand. The VA should step up, she said.
"It's ridiculous," she said. "There are all these members out there right now, and all of them who are coming back."
A state issue
A different debate is taking place in the Virginia General Assembly. Sen. Bryce Reeves, R-Spotsylvania, has introduced a bill that would broaden the state definition of service dog to include those that assist people suffering from a mental disorder or illness. The current definition is limited to dogs that assist someone whose mobility is impaired.
Reeves, a former Army Ranger, said he came across the issue by chance while coaching youth lacrosse. The father of one of his players came to the field with a dog, Axel, who was particularly well-behaved. Reeves struck up a conversation with the father, Jason Haag, a Marine veteran and advocate for K-9s for Warriors, a Florida-based group that trains service dogs to help those with mental stress.
Reeves discovered that some veterans who use these service dogs were denied entrance or service at different establishments because their dog was not helping them see or hear.
"By and large, veterans just suck it up and go on," he said. "But we're going to make sure they're not discriminated against. I'm taking up the cause."
At a press conference to announce his legislation, Reeves witnessed Jason's dog in action.
"I knew Jason was a little bit nervous," he said. "But when Jason would talk, the dog would put his head against his leg. It's a bond I don't think people can explain scientifically, but it's there."