At the University of Colorado at Denver, Kenny Morrow, 46, studies how the environment changes after wildfires. He studies how the land heals and how people can help. This while he copes with the aftermath of fires that tend to rage in his mind.
Like the one that sparked when the Air Force veteran saw a group of students burning an American flag. Since his Desert Storm days, the goateed, burley Morrow has fought people for lesser transgressions.
But this time he had someone to stop him.
“We’ll just say if it wasn’t for Toby I’d probably be in jail.”
Toby is the German shepherd that has been at Morrow’s side since the two graduated from Victory Service Dogs, the Colorado Springs nonprofit training canines to aid troubled vets in the daily war that is life.
The flag burning wasn’t the first time Toby led his handler away, nor was it the last. Another day, the dog might notice Morrow wobbling, losing balance, suffering another episode of vertigo. With Toby’s nuzzling and grumbling, Morrow snaps out of it.
At Victory Service Dogs, among some of the 20 graduate pairs and 50 in the works, the power of man’s best friend is on full display. For many, the dogs are nothing short of life-saving. That includes Christoper Kelly, an Army man who had twice attempted suicide by the time his therapist recommended a service dog last year.
At times, in the darkest depths of his depression, Kelly resorts to self-harm. That’s when Stitch comes to the rescue.
“He whines and starts licking me,” Kelly says of the German shepherd mix. “Really, he won’t stop until I stop.”
So alongside Stitch, Kelly hasn’t become a statistic. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs reports that 20 veterans die by suicide every day — a gruesome phenomenon tied to mental illness that plagues the demographic.
The numbers sprang Steve Corey to action four years ago. The local Army veteran had been selling and repairing cars when he felt the familiar tug of patriotism.
“I wanted to do something that would really make a difference in our veterans’ lives,” he says.
He’d heard prescriptions weren’t doing it — brief respites from deeper pain, sometimes inducing harmful dependency. He’d heard about servicemen and women struggling to get clinical attention, left on long waiting lists.
Then he heard about service dogs.
“Just hearing the stories of what a dog can do compared to what humans can do for disabled veterans, there’s no comparison,” Corey says. “There’s things a dog can do (veterans) can’t get anywhere else.”
Soon after launching Victory Service Dogs, new stories rolled in.
About Buddy, who would use the doggie door to enter his handler’s bedroom, waking him from nightmares.
About another man who said he hadn’t been to the movies in a decade, until his service dog took him back.
About another who recently started with the program. “I’ve seen my husband light up with hope today as he attended his first training class,” his wife later wrote to the nonprofit. “I’ve not seen this emotion in years.”
It starts with making a match — most of the dogs are rescues. From there, the journey to certification varies. Some might take six months, others a couple of years. For all, it’s “a journey of discovery,” says Lisa Lima, the organization’s lead trainer.
To know what they need from the dog, veterans need to know themselves, their tendencies, how they are and how they want to be. It’s a moment of introspection that gets deeper, Lima explains. “They’re learning more about themselves so they can train the dog to learn about them.”
Both Kelly and Stitch are learning how the body and mind can depart reality for a dark, dizzying place. That seems to be the case during panic attacks in public, Kelly says. “It gets so overwhelming I can’t get myself out. So I want (Stitch) to help me realize what’s going on and force me to get out, as it were.”
In private when anxiety strikes, Stitch sits on Kelly’s feet, looking up with sweet, worried eyes. “He just makes himself known,” Kelly says, “and it’s very reassuring.”
For Ryan DeLong, David provides that calming presence. David is a great Pyrenees-golden retriever mix. DeLong is a Navy veteran who’s tried different medications for his depression and anxiety as well as inpatient and outpatient therapy and rehab for his alcoholism.
Now he’s going to Victory Service Dogs twice a week with David.
“You don’t have to explain anything to your dog, of why you’re having a problem or why you can’t be around people or whatever,” DeLong says. “And still your dog’s the one you always wanna be around. I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve been triggered, even inside my house, and I just walk outside and hold my dog and just weep.”
For years, he’s turned to whiskey and beer. He still does in his lonesome. But he says David is helping with that, too.
“Knowing that you have somebody else to take care of — your dog needs you as much as you need your dog — it kinda gives you more incentive to not drink.”
And incentive not to fight, Morrow says. He’s walking away thanks to Toby, the ultimate comrade. That’s what he tells fellow vets about dogs.
“They’re our battle buddies,” he says.