Source: USA Today (Extract)
Posted: June 09, 2024

TOMS RIVER, New Jersey − Before delving into his three deployments in Iraq as a U.S. Marine and military police officer, Anthony Certa issued a gentle command to his service dog.

“Mando, on my lap,” the veteran instructed. Mando, a 2 1/2-year-old black English Labrador, obediently placed his massive paws on Certa’s legs. Certa then lifted the dog onto his lap, where Mando remained still and quiet as Certa began stroking him.

The profound impact Mando had on Certa was evident as he recounted his experiences guarding convoys and protecting explosives ordnance disposal (EOD) personnel. Despite the emotional weight of recalling lost comrades, Certa remained composed, speaking softly and in measured tones.

For years, there has been anecdotal evidence suggesting the benefits of emotional support dogs for veterans like Certa. However, a recent national study provides more conclusive evidence.

Maggie O’Haire, one of the study’s co-authors and a researcher at the University of Arizona College of Veterinary Medicine, along with her colleagues, monitored 156 veterans over a three-month period. This study, partly funded by the National Institutes of Health and released on June 4, revealed that veterans with dogs experienced reduced severity of PTSD symptoms, anxiety, and depression, along with higher levels of psychosocial functioning. The dogs provided for this study were from the nonprofit organization K9s for Warriors.

“We are aware that veterans are facing significant challenges,” O’Haire remarked. “They exhibit much higher rates of depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation compared to the general population.”

‘Really rough coming home’ after combat in Iraq

Certa, who enlisted shortly after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was only 19 years old when he embarked on his first deployment to Iraq in 2003. Stationed in Fallujah during the most intense period of conflict, he completed his final deployment in 2005.

Witnessing the human toll of war, from fellow service members lost to improvised explosive devices (IEDs) to the harrowing experiences of urban warfare and “cordon and knock” operations, Certa struggled to adapt to civilian life.

“It was incredibly challenging returning home,” he shared. “You have certain expectations. In the Marines, discussing such matters isn’t really encouraged.”

He grappled with inner turmoil, resorting to what he termed as “reckless behavior” and relying heavily on alcohol. “You try to bury a lot of the issues,” Certa admitted, while affectionately stroking Mando. “You become reckless, feeling almost invincible. There’s this sense of survivor’s guilt—you made it back (from combat), but others didn’t.”

At 40 years old, Certa, concerned about becoming a tragic statistic, is not isolated in his struggles. According to a 2023 report by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, suicide ranks as the second-leading cause of death among veterans below the age of 45. In 2021 alone, 6,392 veterans lost their lives to suicide—an average of over 17 individuals per day.

‘Something in me wasn’t right’

In 2007, prompted by the concern of his family members, Certa heeded their advice and made the decision to stop drinking. It proved to be a turning point. He returned to academia, pursued a graduate degree in education, and embarked on a career in teaching.

However, a few years later, he found himself grappling once more. At that time, the superintendent of the Matawan School District, Joseph “Jay” Majka, himself a Marine Corps veteran, recognized the challenges that veterans often confront.

“I wasn’t fully aware of how much I was struggling,” Certa recounted. “But my colleagues noticed that something wasn’t right, and (Majka) approached me and said, ‘Let’s get you the support you need.'”

Through the Mighty Oaks program, a faith-based initiative for military veterans, Certa began to rebuild his life, reconnecting with his Christian faith. He embarked on a journey of self-forgiveness, learning to release the weight of past mistakes. Today, he remains dedicated to giving back, actively involved in his church and supporting charitable organizations such as Semper Fi & America’s Fund and Dylan’s Wings of Change.

Saving lives ‘on both ends of the leash’

K9s for Warriors, the organization that matched Certa with Mando, is among the many nonprofits dedicated to assisting veterans in acquiring service dogs. Established in 2011, it was born out of a mother’s observation of her son’s battle with PTSD upon returning from Iraq. She noted a significant improvement in his demeanor when he was in the company of his dog.

The majority of animals paired with veterans by K9s for Warriors are rescue dogs, as stated by spokesperson Dani Bozzini.

“We believe in saving lives at both ends of the leash,” she emphasized. “Rescue dogs possess an abundance of love, intelligence, and affection, and we advocate for second chances, both for the veterans we assist and the dogs themselves.”

Each dog undergoes thorough screening for temperament and obedience capabilities before undergoing a six to eight-month training program. This training focuses on three primary cues: “Look,” which instructs the dog to maintain vigilance, akin to “watch my six” in military terms, beneficial for individuals uncomfortable in enclosed spaces or lacking full visibility of their surroundings; “on my lap,” where the dog provides a comforting presence and weight; and “front,” prompting the dog to create a protective barrier between the veteran and others, alleviating feelings of hyper-vigilance in crowded environments.

According to Bozzini, veterans also undergo a screening process. Once matched, both veterans and dogs spend three weeks bonding and learning to collaborate at one of K9s for Warriors’ two sites, located in Florida and Texas. This training program incurs no cost for veterans; the expenses, which amount to approximately $70,000 per dog, covering training and hosting, are covered by generous donors and philanthropic organizations.

Having been paired for a year, Certa and Mando have formed a close bond, becoming nearly inseparable. Mando accompanies Certa to work daily, even possessing his own school ID card. He is a beloved figure among students at the middle school where Certa teaches and among the members of the church youth group that Certa leads. The only time they part ways is when Certa, an ultramarathon runner, embarks on a long run.

“Having Mando with me is incredibly helpful, and his presence brings such positivity wherever we go,” Certa expressed. “There’s something special about a dog’s demeanor; it’s always uplifting. He’s simply the best.”

Positive outcomes for veterans with dogs

O’Haire noted that while dogs have long been utilized to aid individuals with physical disabilities, their role in alleviating mental health conditions like PTSD and anxiety represents a more recent development. This is one of the factors contributing to the limited depth of research in this area, she explained.

However, according to O’Haire, research was necessary because funding sources, policymakers, and insurance companies depend on evidence and data. She pointed out that while dogs may not be effective for everyone, and they are not the sole intervention, as talk therapy, medications, and ongoing support also play crucial roles in aiding individuals with mental health issues, the study demonstrates that dogs can be a valuable part of the solution.

“As I reflect on almost a decade that I’ve been studying veterans and service dogs, it’s not uncommon for me to hear veterans tell me they wouldn’t be alive if not for their dog,” O’Haire said.

Certa, who married and became a stepdad to two boys in 2022, said Mando is more than a pet. The dog, along with faith and family, helps sustain him.

“The way he looks at me, the way he nudges me,” he said, his voice trailing off a bit. “He needs me as much as I need him.”

If you or someone you know needs help, the national suicide and crisis lifeline in the U.S. is available by calling or texting 988. There is also an online chat at 988lifeline.orgVeterans can also visit www.veteranscrisisline.net/ or text 838255You do not need to be enrolled in VA benefits or services to receive help.