How Blue, the Big Yella Fella, Helped Turned This Veteran’s Life Around


Editor’s Note: America’s Best Pet Pals is a nationwide search for the animal friendships that make you laugh, cry, and purr. Reader’s Digest honors the best in pet friendship in print, online, and on social media. This is the winner in our “Lifesavers” category. To see winners in other categories and our full list of finalists, go to

My dog, Blue, came into my life because I have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For me, it’s a cumulative result of three significant conflicts as an infantry Marine and 20 years of humanitarian work beginning in Somalia, through the Bosnian War, genocide in Rwanda, Darfur, Haiti, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

PTSD is a soul-crushing illness, dragging its victims into nightmarish voids of shame, fear, and chaos. After being diagnosed, I wandered through denial, anger, and self-pity. The deeper the illness’s invasion, the more isolated, reclusive, and angry I became. Finally, I was left with two choices, give in to its malignancy, or find my way back to the calm person who was still inside. I could rage, bargain, pray, beg—it didn’t matter. There was only one path home: help.

In therapy at the Veterans Administration, a friend suggested I consider a service dog. At first, I was ambivalent, but the idea grew. I looked at several organizations and was impressed by the two years of training to become a certified PTSD service dog. However, I dismissed the idea because I thought the cost for such an animal was out of my league. Then, I discovered if a veteran is in a treatment program for PTSD, many of the training organizations will provide the dog at no cost.

Even with the prospect of having a trained companion, my hesitancy was a clash between ego and reality. I felt walking around with a large dog with a vest announcing “service dog” was a public admission of an illness I wanted to hide. It was the motto on the Southeastern Guide Dogs website that hit home: “serving those who cannot see and those who have seen too much.” Mitigating PTSD involves learning to accept the past; the phrase “who have seen too much” fits.

Their application process was straightforward. After a background check, contacts with references, a review of my military record, and verification of a treatment program, I was visited by a Southeastern Guide Dog trainer.

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