Army veteran Jack Miller has spent most of his career helping the wounded, and now a dog is helping to heal him.
The Cortez nurse entered the military after graduating from high school in 1986, but he re-enlisted after 9/11 and served as a combat medic in Germany, Iraq and Kosovo until retiring in 2010. When he started exhibiting signs of post-traumatic stress disorder a few years later, he said his counselor recommended getting a service dog. It took a two-year waiting list and three weeks of training, but on June 1, Miller received his new German shepherd puppy, Scout, through the national nonprofit K9s for Warriors.
K9s for Warriors connects veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual abuse with dogs trained to help them cope with the stress of life. When Miller’s waiting period was over, he said he filled out a 10-page questionnaire, which trainers used to find a dog to match his personality and needs. Then he went to the organization’s “Camp K9” training facility in Ponte Vedra, Florida, to spend 21 days bonding with Scout and learning how to care for her.
Miller and his wife, Cameo Smith, have had dogs before, but he said he was skeptical at first about getting a service dog.
“It’s pretty easy to understand when you see a blind person with a dog, more than when you see someone with a crazy head and a dog,” he said. “People ask me all the time – they think she’s the one that’s served, and I’m just kind of her service human.”
But after spending about a month with Scout, Miller said he believes she’s making a difference in his life. He’s made a few trips to Walmart, which he said would have caused a “meltdown” in the past. He sometimes gets nervous at ATM machines, he said, and in situations that require him to face one direction without being able to see behind him. Now, he has Scout to watch his back. She calms him during stressful situations, sometimes before he even knows he’s stressed.
“She’s watching everything around me, and I can see her doing all that, so it lets me know that I don’t have to worry about it,” he said. “I can just enjoy being out with her.”
Since K9s for Warriors started in 2011, about 323 veterans have been paired with service dogs, according to the organization’s website. Most of the dogs in the program are adopted from high-kill animal shelters. Miller said Scout would have been put down right after Thanksgiving 2016 if she hadn’t been rescued.
Miller graduated from the training program with 10 other veterans. The class that followed him includes 12 trainees, making it the largest class ever, according to marketing representative Samantha Epstein.
K9s for Warriors is funded mostly by individual donations. Although the organization rarely hosts its own events, Epstein said other companies, especially those based near its Florida headquarters, hold fundraisers on its behalf. She said a local news agency holds a telethon every year to support K9s, and last year’s drive raised enough money to pay for a new indoor training facility. Donors can sponsor dogs and receive regular updates on their dog’s progress through the training program and eventual partnership with a veteran. The organization has a large social media following, which Epstein credited with its recent growth.
Right now, the group’s CEO, Rory Diamond, is looking for government funding for service dogs as well, by supporting the Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers Act. The PAWS Act, introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in early May, would require the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to start its own service dog pilot program.
“We’re trying to raise awareness, because a lot of people still don’t recognize service dogs as a viable treatment for PTSD,” Epstein said.
She said that for many veterans, having a service dog is more effective than drugs or other forms of therapy.
Although Miller is the fifth veteran from Colorado to complete the K9 training program, he’s the first from the Cortez area, Epstein said.
Having a service dog hasn’t solved all his problems. He can’t return to his job as a nurse practitioner, he said, because few hospitals will hire someone with a dog. But he said he hopes that will change soon. Meanwhile, he’s pursuing a doctorate in genocide studies, which he hopes could open up opportunities for field medicine. He’s also focused on strengthening his bond with Scout.
“When you’re in the Army or the Marines or whatever, you’re always taught to watch out for each other, and when you get out, you don’t have that anymore,” Miller said. “She is kind of that person. I watch out for her, she watches out for me.”