On Patrol

Until every one comes home | The Magazine of the USO

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This is a story about a soldier, a service dog and our family.

You raise a son to be strong, brave and honest. You try to give him the tools to begin his own life and repeat the process.

Then he goes and joins the Army and goes off to war.

First you bargain with God. Please let him survive Iraq. Let us see him again. Prayers are answered. He’s back. He has survived.

But the young man we sent over is not the man who returned. Post-traumatic stress, an enemy even more insidious than the insurgents, was trying to take our son. The coming years would teach us all about the horrible truths of what PTSD can do to a soldier and a family.

Jeff Mitchell on guard at Camp Sykes in Iraq. Courtesy photoJeff Mitchell on guard at Camp Sykes in Iraq. Courtesy photoWhen Jeff returned for leave from his first six-month deployment in the desert, he seemed okay. In retrospect, his father and I just wanted him to be okay.

Looking back, we later realized he was internalizing all his pain and fear. To make matters worse, while Jeff was on leave, one of his buddies was killed when his helicopter was shot down. Jeff was devastated. He felt so guilty being at home with his family when his buddy died.

After his first deployment, Jeff never really considered the fact that he might have PTSD. He remembered a specific incident that motivated him to talk to his chief. 

“One night while staying with a girlfriend, I had a flashback in the middle of the night,” Jeff said. “She tried to shake me, thinking she was helping me—trying to get me back to reality. I attacked her, and hurt her badly. I woke up the next morning, and she was not there. I called her, thinking she had left early for work, but she answered the phone in tears.

I asked her what was wrong, and she told me what happened. I had no memory of this, and was shocked. She told me she didn’t know what was wrong with me, but told me to go get some help. I went to work that day and told my chief what she had told me. They sent me to the squadron chaplain that morning.

PTS wasn’t really on anyone’s radar at this point. The squadron chaplain referred me to the Family Readiness Group (FRG). I met with the chaplain there a few times, but training and news of the next deployment soon became much more important than going to see the … FRG.” 

Jeff deployed a second time in March 2005. Things didn’t improve.

“Originally we went to Baghdad, but were not there long,” he said. “We headed north to Tel Afaar, and spent the rest of the deployment there providing fire support, conducting raids, traffic control points, and escort missions. By the middle of the deployment, I was extremely stressed out and taking my anger out on my fellow soldiers,” he said.

When Jeff came home in February 2006, it became clear to him that something was not right. He remembers drinking heavily, having frequent flashbacks and nightmares.

“I became very violent and experienced auditory hallucinations. After a very unfortunate night in Boulder, Colorado, where my friend thought I was going to kill him and others around me, I felt empty,” he said. “I knew I couldn’t go on like I was, and went to work the next Monday and talked to my chief and first sergeant about checking myself into the Army Substance Abuse Program.”

Back home, we had heard of combat vets who were unable to reenter the “real” world. Those who locked themselves away and self-medicated with drugs or alcohol—or even worse, the unthinkable, ultimate escape of suicide—but not our smart, strong, handsome son. Never our Jeff. But we had no clue at that time that this was going on.

Then we found he had barricaded himself in his room on post—doors locked, blinds closed—a virtual prisoner in his own shattered mind. He was still “battle ready” waiting for the next awful thing to happen.

After the Army suggested he apply to a Medical Board, which was successful, but the very last thing he wanted, we brought him home, naively thinking that being surrounded by his loving family was just what he needed.

Jeff only left his windowless, basement room to go to the vet center for individual and group counseling, and his Sunday recovery program meetings.  His anxiety had gotten to a point where he didn’t feel safe anywhere, around anyone.

 “I’m always waiting for the mortars to land, the IED to go off, or the car bomb to explode,” he told us.

He avoided all contact with others and his anxiety was so bad he rarely make it through an entire recovery program meeting. He also had quite a bit of trouble staying at his group therapy sessions.

Jeff Mitchell and his service dog, Tazie. Photo by Joan BradyJeff Mitchell and his service dog, Tazie. Photo by Joan Brady

Things got even worse, and in spite of a scary cocktail of prescribed anti-psychotics, anti-depressants and endless visits to psychiatrists and counselors, he was admitted to the psychiatric floor at the VA hospital. Our son had become a virtual zombie, the PTSD making him barely recognizable.

While in the hospital, he saw an article about a veteran in a situation similar to his, and how the healing powers of a service dog had saved the veteran’s life. Jeff read the story.  “How do I get a dog?” was his only question.

As we looked at different organizations, paws4vets, part of the nonprofit, paws4people foundation, seemed like they had the best program for us. Originally, it was thought a dog named Caroline would be Jeff’s new service dog, but it didn’t work out that way.

“I spent many months learning how to handle a dog, but was unable to open up enough to have the type of bond that is required between a handler and their dog,” Jeff said.

But a feral rescue dog from Afghanistan, Tazie, saved his soul and his life. Tazie understood Jeff like no one else. Their partnership is nothing short of a miracle. The staff at paws4vets worked with Jeff and Tazie for years to help them understand how to handle Jeff’s PTSD.

Tazie interrupts Jeff’s nightmares and anxiety and panic attacks. Tazie somehow recognizes when Jeff is nearing the edge and is able to communicate that there are things he needs to do—like take care of Tazie!

But moreover, Tazie has become the healing center for the our family, providing support and love when it is needed most.

My prayer is that by sharing their remarkable story, another veteran’s life will be saved.

Carol Mitchell, Jeff Mitchell’s mother, is a veteran client advocate for paws4vets and resides in Braselton, Georgia.