Shane Phillips keeps two shadow boxes on his mantel to remind him of all the good memories from his time in the Army and law enforcement.
One is filled with badges from the Harker Heights and Round Rock police departments. The other contains his name tape and ribbons from his Army uniform, a piece of shrapnel from an attack and a bracelet he and one of his now deceased buddies made together by tying cobra knots. He remembers eating popcorn and drinking a lot of Orange Crush.
“It’s weird, I don’t know anybody who’s gone downrange and doesn’t miss it every day,” he said. “We had a lot of good times making fun of the hardships.”
With the good, also comes the bad.
He remembers smelling diesel exhaust any time something awful happened; and just as good memories bring a smile to his face, this too causes a reaction in his body.
“It’s instantaneous some days,” Phillips said. “It’s a crushing
feeling on my chest. ... A lot of times I just have to get away from everything going on. A lot of times it’s just sucking it up and dealing with it.”
Phillips deployed twice — once with the Army as a mortarman to Haiti in 1995 and once to Afghanistan as a civilian contractor from 2008 to 2009. In between he was a police officer.
“I can’t wear the badge after ... Afghanistan,” said Phillips, who now works at a hardware store in Waco.
Therapy not enough
The combined trauma experiences of his work have left him with nightmares, anxiety in crowded spaces and just being five minutes late somewhere causes extreme anger — or more simply put, Phillips suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I was happy go lucky,” Phillips said. Before, the only way to really draw anger from him was to mess with his family, he said. Now, just an accidental bump from a stranger in the grocery store can set him off.
He’s done the therapy and he’s taken the pills, but Phillips said it’s not working.
“(The pills) took away the bad stuff, but they also took away the good. For about six months I lived in a state of apathy,” he said.
Now Phillips, 37, is ready to try something he’s seen work, but research hasn’t quite caught up with: a PTSD therapy dog.
“A couple of my friends have one and knowing them before (the trauma) and after, he’s like what he was before,” Phillips said.
Unfortunately, he’s run into several roadblocks to acquire a dog. Most charities either only help veterans who are disabled or served after 9/11, and none he’s found cater to emergency responders.
He also looked into what the Department of Veterans Affairs has to offer, but dog benefits are only given for dogs that aid the blind, the hearing impaired or those with limited mobility, according to the Federal Register.
The National Defense Authorization Act of 2010 charged the VA with conducting a research study to assess the benefits of providing service dogs to veterans with mental health conditions such as PTSD, said Mark Ballesteros, spokesman for the VA.
There has been some confusion in the media, he said, because of a regulation announced Sept. 5 stating what type of service dogs the VA would provide benefits for.
Mental health dogs are excluded from the list and many reported that the benefit was cut, when in fact, it was never there, Ballesteros said.
“We didn’t before and we don’t now. We are looking into it as directed by Congress,” he said.
The VA Office of Research and Development was tasked with this study and assembled a research team with experience in service dog studies and chose the Tampa VA Medical Center as the study site, but from the outset it has been plagued with problems.
There are only 17 active pairings of veterans and dogs.
New pairings have been suspended at this time due to concerns about the health of the dogs at the vendor’s facility and other contract violations, which led the VA to notify the Office of Inspector General, Ballesteros said via email.
Sandy Whitliff, a therapy and service dog trainer in Waco, said the VA can do its study, but she’s seen the results a dog provides and has offered to help Phillips.
If he can raise the $1,500 needed, she will help him acquire a dog — a rescue dog at Phillips’ request — and work with him to train it and certify the animal. Phillips has already raised $795.
“It changes their life. The thing is they learn to depend upon the dog. They know this dog is going to let them know when something happens. Think of it as another tool to help him survive,” she said. “(Phillips has) got all the want to make it happen.”
The dog will be trained to detect when Phillips’ PTSD is starting to kick in through changes in his blood chemistry, Whitliff said.
“The dog will pick up on it before he shows any type of symptoms and the dog will start to be a pest. ... When that starts to come, he can hone in on the dog, and start to calm down. Not that it’s going to stop things from happening, but it will make it tolerable. It will get him way before this outburst even happens,” she said.
The dog can also learn to be a buffer for Phillips in crowds and to wake him from nightmares, but the effectiveness and training standards of these mental health service dogs is still under question.
“Right now, under the (American Disability Act), it has been causing some issues because psychiatry dogs, basically PTSD dogs, there’s almost a gray area. It’s not super definitive,” Whitliff said.
Even Assistance Dogs International — the organization from which the VA requires dog certification for veterans — doesn’t have a definitive standards for therapy service dogs, but are currently working on a draft, said Corey Hudson, North American board president.
Whitliff is licensed through the Delta Society, now known as Pet Partners, to test dogs for public access. The test involves the handler and the dog, because they are a team, she said. Those that pass are provided with a letter from Whitliff stating what the dog is capable of doing and the dog can then wear a vest.
“These animals are amazing,” Whitliff said. “They are there to be our partner and that’s it.”
After Phillips gets his own dog, he said he wants to help others who fall into this void of help.
“Every time I have a conversation, the fire grows a little bit more to help people in that void,” he said, mentioning first responders, cops, firefighters, EMS and their family members also can suffer from PTSD.
“I would like to use my deal as a template to help others,” he said.