By Zach Jensen,
United States military Veterans are in crisis. Veterans Administration information says that of the total number of deployed U.S. servicemen and women who died between 2001 and 2007, more than 20 percent were suicides.
Additionally, according to Ron Hirschberg, an assistant professor of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School, “We know that, among all Veterans, there are 20 suicides a day, and between 2015 and 2020 there was about a 40 percent increase in suicides among active-duty service members. Thirty thousand Veterans have died by suicide in just the Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom conflicts over 20 years.”
Carol Dowe, a 1961 graduate of Decorah High School, lost a Veteran family member to suicide 20 years ago – a tragedy that has followed Dowe ever since – which inspired her to help Veterans in the U.S., Canada and Israel.
“We have to do something about getting a handle on suicide,” Dowe said. “Letting our Veterans know there’s so much help for them is so important.”
It’s that endeavor that led her to finding Retrieving Freedom, a Waverly-based company that trains black Labrador Retrievers to be service animals for Veterans affected by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and children with autism.
Dowe hosted a Retrieving Freedom presentation Tuesday, Oct. 17, at Decorah’s VFW hall.
Retrieving Freedom, Inc. is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to training Service Dogs to help people. They breed and train chosen dogs that exhibit specific traits necessary to perform tasks to help these individuals, and believe in matching the dog to the client.
The training program isn’t designed to train each dog to follow a certain program. Instead, dogs are trained to meet the needs of their specific client. The dogs go through more than two years of training to meet our strict standards for a successful placement.
“The service dogs we train help improve the lives of the people they are placed with,” the website’s information stated. “Not only do they help with specific chores and perform tasks associated with their training, but they also offer companionship and unconditional love.”
The company has placed 147 dogs since its founding and hopes to place 15 more dogs this year. It has service dogs in 19 different states, and currently, Retrieving Freedom is trying to find people to become trainers.
“If you can go down there, I highly recommend it,” Dowe said of Retrieving Freedom. “It’s really wonderful.”
During the Oct. 17 program, Veteran Josh Davison, 35, of Charles City, talked about his experiences with PTSD and how Retrieving Freedom has helped.
“Since I got (my service dog),” Davison said, “I went from an alcoholic sitting in my closet, barely able to function, to finishing my bachelor’s degree, and after that, I became the first person at Wells Fargo with a service dog in a customer-facing role. After that, I went to work for the State of Iowa as a Veteran career planner, and that was a really good fit.”
Information from the American Psychiatric Association (APA) says “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. Examples include natural disasters, serious accidents, terrorist acts, combat and much more. PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II …
“People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended,” the APA’s information continues. “They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.”
Davison enlisted in the Army in 2006 and served in the infantry for eight years, having been deployed twice during that time. In 2017, he was medically retired.
“… they told me I couldn’t play with the infantry kids anymore, because I was too broken. So, I either had to get out or find a different job.”
Davison then served in the Army Reserve, where he met his wife.
“We were living in the middle of nowhere in Nebraska, which was perfect for me, because I was living on my Disability, sitting alone in my basement, playing video games,” the Veteran said. “We had one child at the time, and as my son got older, I realized I was going to have to go out in public and do things more, and I didn’t realize how unprepared for that I was.
“He started going to sporting events, and he plays the piano, so he had recitals, and I got to the point that I could not go at all,” he continued. “I couldn’t leave the house to go to the grocery store to pick something up. I was a closet alcoholic, and by ‘closet’, I mean I literally sat in the closet, while I was playing video games, and I just drank the whole time.”
Davison said his wife was understanding, because she came from a military family, and she was in the military, “so she kind of understood, but she didn’t get it, because she wasn’t there.”
“We actually came back to the Waverly area for a funeral,” he remembered. “One of my friends that I deployed with committed suicide, and my wife ended up talking with Trent, who was working with Retrieving Freedom, and he had Tracer, his service dog.”
Then, about a week after the funeral, Trent, who’d deployed with Davison, showed up at Davison’s door in Nebraska with Tracer.
“They basically strong-armed me into checking out Retrieving Freedom,” said Davison. “So, I went, I checked it out, and I thought ‘There are people out there who need it more than I do.’”
Not long after that visit, though, Davison said he was given a wake-up call that convinced him to take Retrieving Freedom more seriously.
“For a long time, I’d have to take a sleeping pill to get to sleep, and then I would wake up in less than an hour, screaming and yelling,” he said. “My son didn’t have school one day, and I hadn’t slept well. My wife went off to work, and he tried to wake me up, which is something my wife always did, and he didn’t realize he shouldn’t come over and shake Dad awake. I jumped up, and I almost hit him. He cried, I cried. It was just not a good situation at all.”
Davison began the process of getting his own service dog, which meant long drives from Nebraska to Waverly every month. One nice thing about that process, he said, is that Retrieving Freedom has hotel-like rooms available for potential hosts — to make visiting more convenient and less stressful.
But, choosing a service dog wasn’t as easy as it may have sounded. Davison tried working with several dogs, but none of them felt right.
“They’re all great dogs, and they’ll do anything you say,” he said. “But, one of them wanted nothing to do with me. Then, they brought Eda out, and she listened to everything I said, and she just stared at me, and she’d cuddle up with me, and they were like ‘That’s your dog’. There was no question about it. We all knew it.”
If there was any question about his decision, Eda, pronounced “ett-uh”, proved herself the first Christmas she was with her new host, when Davison visited his parents, and Eda jumped up on his father’s lap.
“What is she doing?” his surprised father asked.
“That’s what she does when I start having panic attacks,” Davison explained.
“Why is she doing it to me?” his father continued.
“I have no idea,” Davison replied.
“My dad’s a brittle diabetic, so he checked his blood sugar, and it was like 16,” Davison said. “That’s not something she’s ever been trained for. She just knew something was wrong with him. They always said it’s way harder to train the person than it is to train the dog, and after dealing with me, I totally get it, because this dog is way smarter than I am.”
Davison said that when he was working as a Veteran career planner, his daughter was born, which made him reconsider some parts of his life.
“With my older son, I spent the first five years of his life bouncing around the world with the Army,” he said. “So, I figured I had another chance with my daughter, so I decided to retire. And now, I’ve started my own business.”
Davison has been with Eda for five years. Eda just recently turned seven years old, and aside from occasionally driving to town to get gas, they’ve been together almost every minute of every day ever since they met through Retrieving Freedom.
“Honestly, if she isn’t with me, I contemplate leaving,” he said with a laugh. “Just recently, since the first time I got her, I started leaving her at home when I run to town to put gas in my truck. That’s five minutes away, so I won’t bring her with. It’s been five years, and that’s the only time we’ve been apart.
For more information, to become a trainer or to become a host, visit retrievingfreedom.org or call 319-505-5949.