Two troubled veterans, taking care of each other after war's toll
By SARAH KERSHAW | Special to The Washington Post | Published: July 7, 2015
They flew home from Iraq together on a spring day in 2010 on a C-17 cargo plane, the dog in a metal kennel on the floor at the soldier's feet. When they reached the United States, the soldier went home to his farm in Fountain, Colo., and the dog was transported to the Army's military kennels at Fort Carson, about 12 miles north.
Sgt. 1st Class Matthew Bessler and the Belgian Malinois named Mike had been part of a canine tactical team with the 10th Special Forces Group based at Fort Carson. On the ground in Iraq, their work had been phenomenal, earning Bessler two Bronze Stars. During their second tour as part of an elite Special Operations group in a particularly deadly phase of the war, the pair spent every day and night together for eight months.
At home, the days were never longer than when they were apart. It was as though one's existence was proof of the other's survival.
The soldier and the dog had come home with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Mike was retiring as a combat dog, although his PTSD would get worse before it got better. And although Bessler had suppressed it for as long as he could, he would soon admit that his PTSD had worsened too much for him to return to war.
Bessler had already planned to adopt Mike, but in time, he would wind up training him for a new job — this time as a service dog to help protect Bessler from the unpredictable menace of PTSD.
"Michael is a brother," said Bessler, who served more than half of his 20-year military career in Special Operations, with an expertise in engineering and intelligence-gathering. "He needs me just as much as I need him."
For his service, including the detection of thousands of pounds of explosives and bomb-making materials that probably no human or machine could have located, Mike had been promoted to the rank of major. That was part of the Army's long tradition of bestowing ranks upon war dogs; the dog's rank was usually at least one above the soldier's to encourage respect and discourage abuse.
To Bessler, Mike was a soldier, and their bond was as strong or stronger than the love that can grow between soldiers during combat. Bessler would lose touch with many of his battle brothers over time, but Mike would become a constant in a world spinning with chaos.
Post-traumatic stress disorder was not a new diagnosis for soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan at that time. But PTSD, traumatic brain injury, and the physical and mental needs of the 2.1 million veterans of those long wars would soon become part of a crisis for America.
It was no surprise that Bessler, a highly decorated Army Ranger who fought for long stretches in some of the most violent of America's recent wars and conflicts — Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, Iraq — could return home damaged.
But canine PTSD was a diagnosis only then emerging as a possible explanation for some of the troubling behaviors some veteran combat dogs exhibit.
A key to diagnosing a war dog with post-traumatic stress is noting whether the dog's behavior has changed in the same setting, according to Walter F. Burghardt Jr., the chief of behavioral medicine at the Daniel E. Holland Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
So if a dog consistently searches for bombs, for example, and suddenly stops in the midst of working, with no change in his environment, that would be a clear sign of trauma. "It usually involves a situation where the dog is not working as we expect it to," Burghardt said.
An estimated 5 to 10 percent of the 650 military dogs who served in combat are expected to show symptoms of canine PTSD, he said.
After Bessler and Mike returned from Iraq, Bessler put in the papers to adopt his wartime companion, whose official military name was K-9 Mike 5 #07-257.
While the adoption was pending, Bessler would get up at dawn and drive to Fort Carson, near Colorado Springs, to see Mike at the kennel, inside a shabby beige structure called Building 6001.
The dog was refusing to eat unless Bessler was there with him. So first, Mike would eat from a bowl of dry food, then Bessler would let the 52-pound Belgian Malinois out of his barren steel cage.
Mike would be elated as soon as he spied Bessler. The dog's lean and muscular body would shake with anticipation — his ears perking up, his long tail wagging furiously, his giant pink tongue hanging out.
And Mike would know what was coming next: chasing and chewing on his cherished tennis balls.
The Belgian Malinois, nicknamed "the malligator," is known for its propensity to chew and the incredible strength of its bite. Mike was trained with the "ball reward system," and tennis balls were his prize for doing his duty in Iraq.
During Bessler's early morning visits to the kennel, the two would go around the side of the building to an old basketball court where Mike could chase the ball. Bessler would return to the kennel in the middle of the day to play ball, come back at night and think of Mike during the hours in between.
The dog trainers at Fort Carson told Bessler that Mike was refusing to work with any other handler. In effect, the dog was insisting that he stay with his human brother.
One day, a trainer called Bessler.
"He won't work with anyone else," the trainer said. "He's waiting for you to come back. Come pick up your dog."
The adoption was official, three weeks after they had arrived home from Iraq.
On Bessler's farm, Mike was surrounded by other dogs, cats, horses, chickens, a billy goat — and all the tennis balls he wanted. He was out of that grim cage at Fort Carson and enveloped by love.
But soon after Mike settled in, he began anxiously chewing on rocks instead of tennis balls, crushing his teeth and destroying his gums and a chunk of his lip. He was hyper and hypervigilant, unable to focus and easily spooked by loud noises. He was having accidents in the house.
Mike's gum and lip injuries got so bad that Bessler took him to the emergency room several times. A veterinarian helped perform a series of successful surgeries to essentially reconstruct his nose and mouth.
Mike's veterinarian in Colorado, Carin Ramsel, said that Mike's condition met the criteria for a PTSD diagnosis, and she prescribed 20 milligrams of Prozac a day for anxiety.
Looking back, Bessler believes he can pinpoint the exact moment that pushed Mike over the edge.
Although now worse than ever, Mike had started showing signs of PTSD about six months into their last tour together.
Bessler and Mike had been posted at a small, makeshift base in the swamplands of Basra province, in southeastern Iraq. Bessler had received intel about a pocket of insurgent activity about two miles from the post. To get there, he and Mike, along with an Iraqi intelligence officer and two other members of the 10th Special Forces Group, had to cross a river in a small inflatable boat at night.
The soldiers loaded all their gear into the boat. They had gotten about halfway across the river when the boat started taking on water. It was near the point of capsizing when the soldiers began throwing their rucksacks, rifles, ammo and other gear overboard.
The Iraqi intelligence officer shouted to the other soldiers that he couldn't swim. Bessler told him not to panic. He grabbed Mike's 15-foot leash, and he and the dog went overboard, sinking down into the river, which was filled with muck and kelp.
Bessler jumped into the water and swam toward them. He got hold of Mike first and then tried to grip the intelligence officer's right arm and pull him and the dog toward the shore. But the arm slipped, and the man went under.
Bessler realized then that Mike, who was trained to rappel from an airplane and had mastered other advanced tasks, had no training in the water and was on the verge of drowning. Bessler was holding onto Mike for dear life, gasping for air and pushing his way upward through the morass of kelp.
The boat was floating away. The two other soldiers had made it to shore, and the Iraqi intelligence officer was dead under the water as Bessler and Mike made their way to the riverbank. Bessler followed the faint glare of a light that was flashing friendly code.
The feeling of the Iraqi intelligence officer's arm slipping from his fingers was as haunting as any of the deaths Bessler had witnessed or tried to stop. But this time, Mike's life had been at stake. It had felt beyond terrifying.
Soon after that, Mike stopped searching for bombs. Instead, he was jumpy, on high alert, looking around to try to keep Bessler safe but no longer sniffing for explosives, a key requirement of his job.
So Bessler took Mike to the 10th Special Forces Group's lead dog trainer in Baghdad, who spent some time with the dog and then told Bessler: "He's done working."
In Colorado, after Mike had been on Prozac for six months or so, he became calmer, more focused, more trusting, said Ramsel, Mike's veterinarian. Still, like many returning veterans, Mike needed a purpose. He was a rock star in Iraq until he stopped searching for bombs. Now, he was an unemployed Type A dog.
At that point, Bessler was slowly coming to terms with his own disabling trauma and the fact that he would not be able to return to war. He knew what service dogs could do for struggling veterans and decided to learn everything he could about training one. Mike has been his service dog for three years now.
Facing a recent painful and legally messy divorce, Bessler moved from Colorado to his home town of Powell, Wyo., where he was a star wrestler in high school and where his father and other relatives live.
The connection between dog and soldier began so long ago that it's no stretch to say that Mike can read Bessler's mind — only he does it with his nose, picking up on the scents of his moods.
Now when Bessler goes to Wal-Mart, where it can feel like a minefield of overstimulation is waiting for him in every aisle, if he starts to panic, he'll walk with Mike into a corner. And Mike will stand on his feet. The physical pressure is recognized as one of many ways service dogs can help reduce anxiety.
There is also a science to Mike's ability to help Bessler with his anxiety and fear: The hormone oxytocin, which creates feelings of safety and calm, is stimulated in dogs and humans when they interact with each other.
Besides PTSD, Bessler also has chronic headaches and migraines, and shoulder and back pain — most likely from years of carrying a 60-to-70-pound rucksack — and tinnitus, a continuous, distracting and often painful ringing in the ears. He has other hearing difficulties, memory and speech problems and blurred vision.
You wouldn't know Bessler has so many medical and mental health issues from looking at him. That's why experts say the signature wounds of these wars are mostly invisible.
Thick with muscle, heavily tattooed but demure in his manner, Bessler could simply be the likable guy in a baseball cap riding around in his pickup truck with a cool dog and a really cute puppy in the front seat. The puppy, Ziva (a Hebrew name that means brilliance and splendor) is a black Lab that was a present from a neighbor for Valentine's Day.
But Bessler's moods change day to day, sometimes hour by hour. Sometimes medications work, sometimes they don't. Out of nowhere, he will be overcome by a flashback. He will get so fed up with the nightmares and sleepless nights — "Why even bother to nap or sleep?" he said by telephone one night — he will think the only thing that can stop all the physical and psychic pain is death.
Then Mike will pick up on Bessler's depressive state, and, as well-trained service dogs do, interrupt him and stop the demons from taking over. The dog will climb on top of Bessler as if to make sure his master cannot go anywhere and hurt himself. Or, he will drop a tennis ball or stuffed toy in Bessler's lap and refuse to leave until he gets to chase one of them.
And Bessler will consider that taking his life would mean leaving Mike behind. A credo in the military is to leave no soldier behind.
"That's not being fair to the dog, not being fair to that partner who's stood beside me forever," he said, crying. "When you can escape yourself for a minute, and stop being selfish and think about the things you have, in my world, it's that dog."
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