Service dog helped retired Virginia Marine overcome PTSD
By MICHELE CANTY | The Virginia Gazette, Williamsburg (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 30, 2016
It took Williamsburg native Jason Haag 10 years to face the shadow of post traumatic stress disorder that had taken over his life.
The Marine's nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and severe depression weren't being controlled by the more than 30 prescriptions he took every day. He'd wash the medication down with alcohol, trying to erase the fear and pain from three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since being shot and having an RPG missile explode near his head, leaving him deaf in one ear, Haag suffers from PTSD, a chronic mental health disorder that develops after a terrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm.
In 2012, Haag's life changed when he met a 2-year-old German shepherd named Axel from a national organization, K-9s for Warriors, the retired Marine Captain told a group of Marines and their family members Saturday during a celebration of the miltary branches' upcoming birthday hosted by Williamsburg Marines group.
"Axel hit the reset button for me, and gave me the desire to stop using prescription medications," Haag said. "He saved my life."
Haag is one of more than two million veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan nationwide diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Thousands of others may have the disorder, but like Haag, did not immediately seek treatment because of the stigma surrounding those with PTSD, which brands them as "weak," or fears that it could put their military careers at risk.
Haag told the retired Marines group that his service dog helped him face the horrors he'd seen, and deal with them. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you guys what that's like," Haag said, as some of the Marines gathered, many combat veterans, nodded in agreement.
After training with Axel and bringing him home, Haag said his life began to change. Instead of shying away from time with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Elizabeth, and their three children, he slowly started to rejoin them.
He also began working with K-9s for Warriors, helping them raise PTSD awareness and bring healing service animals to veterans of post-Sept. 11 wars.
"I could talk to you forever about this organization and the good it does," Haag said. "These animals provide a remarkable service for our veterans."
Haag answered questions from the crowd about how they could help K9s for Warriors. He suggested making a donation, because the care and training for veterans' service animals can cost up to $30,000, he said.
"Depending on the service member's disability, or disorder, the dog's training varies," Haag said. "For example, the training for a dog to help an amputee would take longer, and be more expensive."
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Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Bessler and his Belgian Malinois, Mike, take a walk in Cody, Wyo. They were part of a canine tactical team with the 10th Special Forces Group. Their tours in Iraq led to post-traumatic stress, but soldier and dog have been helped by their deep connection.
BONNIE JO MOUNT/THE WASHINGTON POST