OFFUTT AIR FORCE BASE, Neb. – Muffled gunfire reverberates from an unknown location within the building; Peter’s unwavering gaze is focused on his partner’s ‘six’ — three weeks of training is about to be put to the test.
The Omaha Gun Club is the host to certified training sessions between military service dogs and their handlers. It is also where Russ Dillon of Dillon’s Dogs likes to see dogs complete their final test.
“Peter is a rescue dog out of Georgia,” said Master Sgt. Tim Williams, a maintainer who transitioned to the Office of the Warrior Advocate. “He was found hit on the side of the road with a broken leg and he was left there for two days.”
The two-year-old mutt would eventually find his way into William’s life as a service dog trained in anxiety reaction, motivation, and medication reminders.
“He’s going to be one of the fastest graduates from Dillon’s Dogs,” Williams said. “He is extremely zen and he gets me and I get him.”
In order to graduate from Dillon’s Dogs, Peter would need to prove that he can be undeterred from the sound of gunfire, that he couldn’t be distracted by another dog, how he walks up and down isles with his handler, and finally if he would eat food placed in front of him without permission. Peter would pass these tests, being the fastest dog to graduate the course.
William’s career was on the fast track. He was selected to the rank of master sergeant on his first test and was selected as his squadron’s senior noncommissioned officer of the year in 2018.
Behind the patina of an ideal military career was the invisible wound of a traumatic brain injury that was suffered over multiple deployments and the reason he now finds himself and Peter with the OWA.
“This is a special program with special people that really helps bridge the gap and emptiness between active duty service and the time that you are medically incapable of performing your duties,” Williams said.
Vested service dogs are a common feature in the OWA facility, a small annex found just over abandoned train tracks that once brought supplies into the historic Martin Bomber Building.
The OWA is a first-of-its-kind organization that was founded by two wounded warriors that saw a need for such a facility to exist. It is in that same spirit of seeing needs and answering the call that service dogs are becoming part of Offutt’s landscape and cultural norms.
Organically, a small group of veterans was in the right place, with the right skills, the right heart and passion to create a system that would help their fellow wingmen who were suffering from invisible wounds.
Dillon was a former dog handler for the Air Force. After eight years of service, he separated and moved back to Omaha to start working as a part-time dog trainer.
It was from the advice of Marilyn Offut, great, great grand niece of Jarvis Offutt, Offutt AFB’s namesake, that convinced Dillon to work as a dog trainer full time after working with her dog.
Dillon has trained dogs for every purpose and function with the exceptions of seeing-eye dogs and hearing-impaired dogs. But it was in service dogs, for his fellow veterans, where he saw an opportunity to help.
Trained service dogs typically cost $25,000 to $30,000 and can take years to obtain.
“The problem with raising tens of thousands of dollars every 10 years (the working life of a service dog) is that you may require three or more service dogs within your lifetime and most people can’t afford an expensive service dog on a 10-year rotation,” Dillon said. “I give the customer the tools to train their own dog.”
Though more economical, when a veteran brings their dog, typically a rescue dog, to Dillon’s Dogs they still need to pay for the training and that is where another veteran, Bob Dean, saw a need.
Dean, a retired sheet metal troop and current quality assurance inspector from the 55th Maintenance Group, along with a few others, started the nonprofit JAVELAN, where people can donate to help sponsor a service dog for veterans.
JAVELAN, an acronym for Jack Assisting Veterans Enjoy Life Again, was named after his wife’s service dog ‘Jack’ and initially had a mission to provide up to six dogs per year for veterans. However, they found that the need for their services far exceeded their initial expectations and has graduated over 70 teams since inception.
Dean was skeptical of the effectiveness of service dogs when his wife Charlotte adopted and trained Jack following a month long stay at the Veterans Affairs hospital, while coping with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Having Jack forced her to get out into public and face her fears uncomfortable, but she could do it because she had Jack,” he said.
Within three years of having Jack, Charlotte went from taking 32 medications to three.
Soon the stand-alone nonprofit was approached by Omaha’s First Responders Foundation, headed by former U.S. Strategic Command Chief of Staff, retired U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Allen W. Batschelet, and was asked to align with their organization.
The merger of JAVELAN and the First Responders Foundation effectively consolidated first responders with military veterans, allowing them to sponsor numerous dogs each year.
Before Dillon and Dean get involved with their respective companies, a mental health professional needs to recommend a service dog. That is where Michelle Logsdon, a case management nurse from the 55th Wing Medical Group, becomes a central hub of the process.
A nurse of 42 years, Logsdon has spent the past six years working with wounded warrior patients or wounded warrior candidates.
Looking for a more local and streamlined way of getting quality dogs to her clients, Logsdon reached out to JAVELAN.
“The biggest benefit of JAVELAN is that they are local and the dogs are consistently well-trained,” Logsdon said. “It makes me so happy when I see how well Peter helps Tim be calm.”
Though scientific evidence is largely anecdotal and based on self-reporting, numerous studies indicate that service dogs can augment their handlers’ treatment of PTSD by giving them something to care about, protect and be responsible for.
Logsdon observes the benefits of the program first hand for those suffering from invisible wounds and their need to be productive, busy and working, all things required of a dog handler as they transition out of the military.
“Here I am. This great warrior who’s worked all these years and done all of this cool stuff, and now I have this horrible ‘moral injury’ that has turned my life upside down and now I can’t control my anger — I’m anxious all the time, irritable,” Logsdon said. “When you look at those symptoms and it’s hard to be in a unit, that’s where the dogs really make a difference.”
The stigma of service dogs has been slowly progressing into that of acceptance and normalization at Offutt.
“We are a good wingman when we have places like OWA that support our members,” Logsdon said. “Programs like Wounded Warrior, teams of providers that support them and having dogs is a big part of it.”
Veterans suffering from PTSD, or other invisible wounds, point to the consistency that the service dog provides in their medical treatment as one of the largest benefits; medications continually need to be filled, the mental benefits of physical therapy wane when at rest, counseling sessions need to be scheduled, but a dog is always there.