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Help to Army veteran learning to deal with PTSD now includes service dog

Army veteran Jeff Fredrickson and his wife, Tammy, seen in a June 24, 2017, posting.

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By RITCHIE STARNES | The Stanly News & Press, Albemarle, N.C. | Published: August 10, 2017

When loved ones reached out to help U.S. Army Sgt. Jeff Fredrickson deal with the horrors of war experienced during two tours of Iraq, the former soldier withdrew because he couldn't explain what he didn't understand.

Along with a slew of debilitating symptoms associated with Post-Traumatic Stress Disability (PTSD), Fredrickson wallowed in confusion about what had happened to his once promising future. He withdrew from the world in search of sleep that seldom came. A bevy of issues followed that left him paranoid and unable to function not only in society but within family.

"You want to be the tough guy because that's what you're trained to be," Jeff said. "You don't want to be the weak link. You don't want to be that guy."

At age 22 in 2001, Jeff enlisted in the Army, eventually stationed with the 101st Airborne Division. In 2003, he was first thrust into war in a country so far removed from his Southern roots. War-torn Iraq was a country without the simplest of amenities, surrounded by sand and sweltering heat.

Casualties of the war left the stench of rotting flesh strewn about the landscape – a constant reminder of war's perilous journey.

"You'll never forget that smell once it's in your system," Jeff said. "Bloated bodies lying in the hot sun. I remember smelling death."

From behind a .50 caliber arsenal mounted on a vehicle in a convoy, Jeff recalled watching a group of women and children crying and wailing while carrying a plastic bag.

As they sifted through the charred wreckage of a bombed truck, the foul odor of death stirring, the women and children began tossing body parts into the bag in an attempt to save something human from the remains of their loved ones killed in battle.

Jeff discerns the images randomly, almost as chaotic as the mounting casualties.

"This was not like a movie. It was very real," he added.

Sometimes Jeff watched the killing of allies, even friends.

After his first stint in Iraq, Jeff returned to the U.S. However, he was recalled as a reserve for a second tour in Iraq, part of the 96th MP Battalion of San Diego.

Once out of Iraq permanently, Jeff spent eight months on medical hold in Texas.

He then returned to Alabama to resume his life.

"I wanted to close that chapter of my life," Jeff said. "I found myself wanting normalcy. I bought a home and a truck."

Only another war lay waiting. This enemy, born from his time in Iraq, stealthily crept into Jeff's life and robbed him of whatever remained of normal.

It started with an inability to sleep, followed by extreme paranoia.

"I would seldom leave the house," Jeff said. "When I bought groceries, I'd stock up so I wouldn't have to go back out as often. I began to peer through closed blinds. I became extremely isolated."

His issues snow-balled, leading to other problems.

"I couldn't keep a job," Jeff said. "I couldn't get out of bed. I was living like a hermit."

As Jeff discussed his post-war troubles, he talked about he paled to the toughness of his grandfather, a veteran of World War II.

"That (WWII) was a lot worse than what I went through," he said. "And he was successful.

"I started to question myself. Am I defective? Why am I like this?" Jeff added.

By this time, Jeff was consuming a plethora of prescribed medications.

Sleep remained elusive as his health continued to decline. His weight ballooned upward of 100 extra pounds.

By 2010, Jeff had reached a turning point, but not before his descent had another low to reach before rebounding.

Jeff eventually met and married Tammy.

Albeit sporadically, Jeff managed to return to work. He worked at a clinic in Bristol, Tennessee assisting other veterans. However, he was later fired as his attendance waned from the residue of PTSD.

A doctor at the clinic urged Jeff to enter a VA hospital in Johnson City, Tennessee for more treatment.

Meanwhile, Jeff's inability to work led to financial problems for his family, which included Tammy and her son, Ethan, from a previous marriage.

Tammy was forced to give up her job to help care for her husband.

Consequently, they turned to the food pantry so the family could eat. They also relied on emergency assistance to pay the electrical bill.

"It was humiliating. How do you go from a respected, upstanding soldier to this?" Jeff said.

Jeff's problems also caused his stepson to fear him. During one of his visits with his father, Ethan did not want to immediately return home.

"I was not abusive toward him, but he was scared of me," Jeff said. "He didn't want to come home. Up to that point, I had never been a father figure. I wasn't what I should have been."

Even when Jeff's condition seemingly had no end, Tammy never gave up.

"To me, love never fails. Divorce was not an option," Tammy said. "I was determined we weren't going to be another statistic."

Case workers were not as optimistic. They warned Tammy she would become a mother figure to Jeff. Furthermore, they suggested the couple refrain from having children.

"When we had Katelyn (daughter) that was the best thing that ever happened to Jeff," Tammy said. "It gave him purpose.

Learning about PTSD has been the key to coping, she added.

"It's me and Jeff against PTSD. It's not Jeff against me," Tammy said. "I know he loves me and I love him."

"Once you understand (PTSD), you understand the triggers," she continued.

In what began as a gradual process, Jeff has since been declared 100 percent disabled by the Veterans Administration.

Courtesy of Operation Homefront, the Fredrickson family was awarded a home in Richfield after the organization put them on a path to fiscal recovery.

In 2012, the Fredricksons welcomed daughter Katelyn.

Jeff has since been weaned off the cache of meds, though he still takes a few daily.

Last month Jeff received another critical aid to the effects of PTSD. He recently returned home with his new service dog, Trooper, a German shepherd, after completing the Florida-based, national service dog training program K9s For Warriors.

K9s For Warriors serves veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury (TBI), and/or military sexual trauma (MST). Jeff resided at Camp K9, the nonprofit's state-of-the-art facility, for 21 days during July.

He received life-changing instruction on how to utilize a service dog to mitigate the symptoms associated with his military trauma, at no cost to him. Jeff's service dog worked with professional dog trainers for months to prepare for the team's pairing.

"The empirical evidence of the efficacy of service dogs in treating the symptoms of PTSD is clear and overwhelming," said Rory Diamond, CEO, K9s For Warriors. "Veteran suicide is an epidemic, so the time for action is now. We need the support of lawmakers and our communities to help our heroes heal."

Trooper was taught specific commands and tasks that will help Jeff reintegrate into civilian society with dignity and independence. He was matched to the rescue dog based on needs, personality and lifestyle.

"Jeff has done a 180 (degrees) since he got Trooper. Trooper keeps him active instead of letting him sit on the sofa in front of the TV, letting his mind go to dark places," Tammy said.

For the next month Trooper will remain tethered to Jeff as the two become better acclimated.

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(c)2017 The Stanly News & Press (Albemarle, N.C.)
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