Leashes of Valor, Dogs of War
Caroline County K-9 service organization is saving veterans’ lives
Twenty-eight-year-old Marine Corps veteran Jason Searls is having a full-fledged panic attack.
In his mind, he is back in Afghanistan, transporting a large amount of money, making him a target for the indigenous troops that just yesterday were his allies. He’s sweating profusely, his breathing is erratic, his heart is pounding — and then he feels a cold dog nose jabbing him in the leg.
Searls slowly begins to register that he is not in Afghanistan. He is in Fredericksburg, Va., and his trusted service dog, Hawkeye, is right by his side, doing his job.
“That’s pretty much what it’s like,” Searls says of the complex post-traumatic stress disorder from which he suffers, and the faithful and highly trained English Labrador that helps him deal with it.
In addition to being a military veteran, Searls is also a veteran of a K-9 Leashes of Valor, a Caroline County-based nonprofit in Rappahannock Electric Cooperative territory.
It works to provide highly trained service dogs to every post-9/11 veteran who needs one to ease the symptoms of PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual trauma, a type of trauma that can cause PTSD.The stories that veterans bring to Leashes of Valor are powerful and even disheartening; the canines restore the heart.
A NOVEL VENTURE
The Leashes of Valor mission is as simple as it is critical: Bring service dogs and post-9/11 veterans together to enrich the lives of both. To accomplish that mission, the organization brought together a remarkable leadership team.
Leashes of Valor President and co-founder Danique Masingill is a Navy veteran who has worked to advance both law and science surrounding the role of service dogs in the treatment for PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. She completed graduate and undergraduate degrees at Syracuse University, where she established herself as an expert in the field of military working canines and service dogs.
CEO and cofounder Jason Haag spent 13 years in the Marine Corps before retiring as a captain. He credits his service dog, Axel, for saving his life from PTSD after a machine-gun injury he sustained during an Iraqi combat mission. Haag tours the country educating policymakers, organizations and others, on the benefits of service dogs for veterans.
Director of Canine Operations and cofounder Matthew Masingill is a 21- year Navy veteran and advocate serving the veteran and military community. His extensive experience in program management and development includes acting as a trainer. More than 200 K-9 teams have graduated and recertified under his leadership.
“Leashes of Valor is located on a 20-acre farm in Caroline County, where we have our live-in facility for our warriors and service dogs,” says Danique Masingill.
“Atmax operation, our facility graduates three service dog teams per month. Training a service dog is expensive, costing upward of $25,000 per dog. This is due to the 16 to 20 months of training necessary to ensure the quality of our service dogs.Thanks to the generosity of our donors, veterans who receive a Leashes of Valor service dog pay nothing, but to be able to help more veterans we need more donors,” she says.
Volunteers are an integral part of the program; fosters typically care for a dog for two or three months, teaching manners and acclimating them to family life before the animals go to a different household. Program managers say the training is important so the dogs are exposed to just about any situation they might face in service to their veteran.
Leashes of Valor mission – to enrich the lives of both veterans and service dogs.
Searls says the service dog recipient training also is arduous, but worth it.
“First, I had to fill out a 32-page application,” he says. “Then I trained with Hawkeye for nearly a year to make sure he recognized my PTSD panic triggers and behaviors so he would know how to de-escalate me.”
Now, Searls says, having Hawkeye has allowed him to live his life free of medications.
Pam Jeffcoat of Yorktown, Va., experienced military sexual trauma and came to Leashes of Valor from a different background, but also praises the program. She says her service dog, Nimitz, saved her life.
Jeffcoat says her post-traumatic stress has its roots, not in war, but in the actions of another person in uniform. For a long time, she kept the incidents to herself, bottling them up and turning to alcohol to numb her feelings.
“I was in pure survival mode,” she says. “I had nightmares and flashbacks and was losing significant gaps of time. I was prescribed medications. I tried talk therapy and was self-medicating, everything you can imagine. Nimitz saved my life. I wouldn’t be here without him.”
Jeffcoat says Nimitz allows her to live her life fully and no longer just exist in survival mode.
“He’s woken me up countless times from nightmares. I wake up, and he’s right on top of me, laying there or licking my face. I’m not always fully in the moment and realizing I’m home and safe. But I see Nimitz. Nimitz is there, so we’ve got to be safe,” she says.
“I have this incredible dog and this incredible bond with him. It’s a bond I can’t explain to anyone else unless they’ve been here, too. I really hope that anyone who can benefit from it can also experience it.”
For more, go to leashesofvalor.org.