Maine veterans get a boost from service dogs and volunteers from Highland Green, Topsham’s 55-and-up residential community.
Embrace A Vet participants, with their service dogs (and executive director Tracy Shaw, seated), who have gotten a critical assist from volunteers who live at Highland Green.
[dropcap letter=”W”]hen Terri Schlotterbeck retired from a 22-year career in the Navy, she struggled with the debilitating anger, depression, and anxiety of post-traumatic stress disorder. In public, she was constantly on high alert. “It was exhausting trying to keep an eye on everyone in my environment,” says Schlotterbeck. “I could hold it all in while I was out. But when I’d come home, something small would set me off, which wasn’t fair to my family. I was so tired of feeling so miserable.”
That changed after Schlotterbeck and her Lab-mix, Ranger, entered Paws for Peace, a service-dog training program run by Embrace A Vet, a Brunswick-based nonprofit. Any time Schlotterbeck raises her voice, a signal that her anxiety is rising, Ranger paws her, jumps on her, or pushes his head into her lap, which interrupts the momentum of the emotion before it escalates. “Ranger provides a distraction that helps me turn back before the anger and anxiety turn to dark feelings,” she says. Though she’d had therapy and medications, “having Ranger was a totally new approach to getting my life back.”
Schlotterbeck is one of more than 115 veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injury (TBI) who’ve found a lifeline in Embrace A Vet. The organization matches dogs with Maine veterans living with these conditions and provides a year-long service-dog training program, along with support for veterans’ caregivers.
In addition to providing companionship and unconditional love, says executive director Tracy Shaw, dogs can be trained in a variety of tasks that mitigate the symptoms of PTSD and TBI, helping veterans resume the basic activities of daily life. Out in public, for example, a dog might be trained to stand between its handler and others, to help reduce a handler’s anxiety over proximity to other people. A service dog can also be trained to spot cues, like clenched fists or heavy breathing, that indicate its handler is having a panic attack. A dog can then interrupt the episode by draping its body across its handler, the physical pressure helping reduce stress-inducing cortisol.
Until last year, Embrace A Vet was an entirely volunteer-run organization, and a lot of the volunteers writing grants, planning fundraisers, and sitting alongside veterans at weekly training sessions, were residents of Highland Green, a 55+ active-adult community in Topsham. Highland Green volunteers — many of whom are retired from health-care careers, are veterans themselves, or have personal military connections — devote anywhere from 5 to 20 hours a week to volunteering for Embrace A Vet.
“Without our dedicated volunteers,” Shaw says, “we couldn’t run the operation with the outcome and success that we’d had.”
Some Highland Green folks serve on the organization’s board of directors and/or volunteer as “Battle Buddies,” doing home visits before the training begins, joining vets for support during training sessions, making themselves available to the veterans (by phone, email, or face-to-face) to answer basic questions about dog training, or offer an empathetic ear for issues they may not feel comfortable sharing with a group. Embrace A Vet participant Michael Wright and his mottled hound mix, Capone, have worked with Battle Buddy David Vaughn, a 73-year-old Highland Green resident and an Air Force and Vietnam veteran.
of Mainers are veterans
of veterans struggle with PTSD
U.S. veterans per day die by suicide
“It made such a huge difference to have someone who knows what you’re going through,” says Wright. “He’s got my back.”
Diane Hender, a Highland Green resident and immediate past president of Embrace A Vet’s board, comes from a long line of veterans, and her son served two tours in Iraq.
Hender marvels at the transformations she’s seen veterans make in the program. She’s seen veterans move past years of isolation — and, in some cases, suicide attempts — to start socializing, traveling, and even mentoring other vets. “Even when I write a grant, it brings me to tears,” she says.
Richard Corbin, a retired pulmonologist, Air Force vet, and president of Embrace A Vet’s board, says that he and other Highland Green volunteers are themselves enriched by the experience. “It is absolutely a two-way street,” Corbin says. “We saw so many who came home from war who were ignored and forgotten — this is a chance to pay back those who have sacrificed so much for our country.”
Schlotterbeck has been profoundly moved by their efforts. “When you get out, you feel like you have nobody who understands, you don’t want to seek help, and you don’t want to be judged,” she says. “It means everything to have those volunteers from Highland Green and elsewhere — who don’t judge you, who bring their own life experiences to the table, and are just doing it because they care.”
Wimberley Burton (left) and David Vaughn are two of many Highland Green residents who volunteer with Embrace A Vet, assisting with training and other tasks.