MedStar: Paws for Wounded Warriors Help US Veterans Beat Stress
August 6, 2012
According to a Rand
Corporation study, more than 26 percent of American troops deployed
overseas have returned to the US with traumatic brain injuries and post
traumatic stress disorder or PTSD since 2001. Experimental programs that
pair combat veterans suffering from brain injuries and PTSD with therapy
dogs have showed positive results. Now four U.S. military bases have
programs with dogs. Chief Master Sgt. Richard Simonsen, who was injured
twice in combat, has benefited from the program.
Simonsen, the senior enlisted leader at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in
Washington, D.C. suffers from post traumatic stress disorder and a
traumatic brain injury he received while deployed in Afghanistan. He's
been working with Yoko, a Black Labrador retriever, in his struggle
“I think sometimes she realizes when I have a particularly tough email
that I have to write, she would interrupt me and say, it’s Yoko time,
it’s time to pet my belly. And she is usually right," he admits.
Simonsen received Yoko from "Paws for Wounded Warriors", a group that
provides therapy dogs to members of the military. Yoko's job: to help
Simonsen adjust back home. Yoko can follow more than 90 commands.
Since returning home, Simonsen has been battling anxiety, depression
and memory loss, like thousands of other combat veterans suffering from
the mental wounds of war.
“The things that were really easy for me, were a little more difficult,
hard sometimes," he explains, "and the things in life that you can do
but you struggle at doing them, became impossible."
Simonsen says since he received Yoko, life has become easier.
“Mild traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD
have a lot of overlapping symptoms," explains Dr. Michael Yochelson, the
medical director at MedStar National Rehabilitation Hospital in
Washington. "The symptoms include difficulty concentrating, a lot of
fatigue, irritability, depressed mood, sadness, anxiety.”
Dr. Yochelson says medication and psychotherapy are the usual
treatments, but pet therapy also helps.
"We actually have pets that come in that are specially trained and we do
that in our hospital here,” he says.
Yoko, like other therapy dogs, received two years of special training so
she can sense when her companion is depressed and be both unobtrusive
and an unconditional friend.
Simonsen takes Yoko wherever he goes on the base. He says having a dog
at his side has helped him and others open up.
am the guy with the dog,” he jokes.
When the staff sergeant is with his family, Yoko is off duty. But
Simonsen's daughter Rachel says since Yoko came to live with them, her
father is less irritable.
“I am very proud to call him my dad, and I love Yoko for what she does
for him every day," she says.
“I don’t think everyone needs to walk around with a service dog,"
Simonsen notes, "but I think there are more veterans out there, whether
they are on active duty or not, who would benefit from at least time
For Simonsen, the slow road to healing is easier now with his
four-legged friend at his side.