US Army veteran, Dustin's life changed when he met Nigel the rescue dog, turned service pup. After serving 12 years in our nations military, Dustin was diagnosed with PTSD and found solace in the Shelter to Soldier Program- A program that rescues dogs from shelters, trains them to be service dogs, and then awards them to deserving veterans suffering from psychological traumas.
We got the opportunity to speak with Dustin about his personal journey, military career, and life saving path through the Shelter to Soldier program with service dog, Nigel. We hope that their story inspires you to share with others that may have a similar story and need help to move forward.
When did you join the military?
I joined the Army in 2002 and was training as an Artilleryman at Fort Sill, Ok. My first duty station was at Fort Campbell in Kentucky. In 2003 I was deployed to Iraq during the first invasion. My job was to follow the infantry and shoot artillery rounds into enemy defenses so that the infantry could continue to move forward. Once we moved forward, we would drive through the destruction and saw firsthand the damage we caused. I did this for the entire year I was in Iraq. No one should be subject to the sights and events I witnessed while in war.
What was your next job in the military?
When I returned from deployment, I decided that I did not want to be on the front lines again and changed my job to Mortuary Affairs. During the start of the new job, I would wash and process the personal belongings of fallen soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. As I moved up in ranks, my duties changed as well. The next job I had was processing the remains of fallen soldiers. I would wash and prepare fallen soldiers for burial, as well as work with the FBI to identify fallen soldiers by taking fingerprints. Later in my career, I would escort fallen soldiers to their hometowns as well as notify next of kin of their loved ones deaths.
When did you start to feel the psychological effects of your military career?
During my 12 year career, I always knew that something was off in me but I could never talk about it or admit there was something wrong. I was taught in the military never to complain and learned very quickly how to hide and suppress my emotions. There was no outlet for me to talk about what was going on in head. All I knew was to put the left foot in front of the right and keep moving forward. Everyone has a breaking point and mine occurred in 2013. My mind and body just couldn’t take any more pain so I decided to leave the Military in 2014.
What were you diagnosed with and how did that feel?
In 2013 I was diagnosed with PTSD with onset Major Depressive Disorder. During my last year in the military I started to see a therapist to address my symptoms. I was having panic attacks, nightmares, night terrors, hypervigilance, anxiety, and I was isolating from friends and family. It was very difficult for me to talk to someone who did not share the same experiences as I did. Finally, 2014 I was honorably discharged from the Army and was now on my own to deal with my PTSD.
What happened after you got honorably discharged from the military?
Now out of the military and away from any support, I had my first suicidal thoughts. I remember sitting in my car deciding if I was going to end my life to stop the emotional pain I was in. As I was sitting in my car contemplating suicide, I saw someone walking a dog and for a split second, it took my mind off my suicidal thoughts. As I followed them, I noticed that they were walking into a shelter and I had a thought that maybe I needed a dog to be in my life. I walked into the shelter and adopted a Pitbull mix, Bella. After taking her home I quickly realized that now I have this untrained dog that I have to take care of let alone take care of myself. At one point I was going to take her back to the shelter but luckily a friend of mine called and said I should get her trained as a service dog. Long story short, I ended up paying $15,000 to have her trained. Life was great, she really helped me live a normal again.
How did you find the Shelter to Soldier program?
In December of 2019, Bella suddenly passed away from cancer. My world came crumbling down and all of my PTSD symptoms came back. I started having more panic attacks, I was calling off work a lot, my job performance was declining, and my relationships began to suffer. I was in a panic to find another service dog and was worried about coming up with another $15,000. I started to do some research and found nonprofits that would give me a service dog for free. I qualified for all the programs but they all had a 1-2 year waiting list. I didn’t know if I would be around the next day. I had an immediate need. I reached out to Shelter to Soldier thinking I was going to get the same response but I was in shock when they said they had no waiting list. Within a few weeks I was meeting potential dogs. Just knowing I was accepted into the program, showed me the light at the end of the tunnel. During one of my matching sessions, Nigel walked in the gate and there was an instant connection. I knew he was going to be my service dog.
How did rescue dog, turned service dog, Nigel, help you to recover?
When I started the program with Nigel, I was still closed off to the world and didn’t want to open up. Each training session I had, I was able to grow and take down my walls. The biggest factor was that my trainer as well as most of the staff are prior service which gave me the comfort to open up and grow. During the course of my program I have overcome many obstacles that I would have never been able to without the support of Shelter to Soldier and Nigel by my side every step of the way. Because of Red Star sponsors like you, I am able to live a normal life again.
What have you been able to accomplish with Nigel by your side?
Most recently with Nigel by my side, I was able to finish my master’s degree and am now 18 months away from earing my doctorate. This would not have been possible if it was not for the Shelter to Soldier program which allowed me to receive a service dog at no cost.
Shelter to Soldier is a California 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that adopts dogs from local shelters and trains them to become psychiatric service dogs for post-9/11 combat veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress (PTS), Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and/or other psychological injuries. The program also places Emotional Support Animals (ESAs) with active duty military and veterans, and deploys their Shelter to Soldier Canine Ambassadors, a team of therapy dogs, to provide visits of love and comfort to active duty military, veterans and their families as well as community partners throughout Southern California.
Shelter to Soldier Co Founder, Graham Bloem is the recipient of the American Red Cross Real Heroes Award, 10News Leadership Award, CBS8 News Change It Up Award, Honeywell Life Safety Award, and the 2016 Waggy Award. Additionally, Shelter to Soldier is accredited by the Patriot’s Initiative. https://www.sheltertosoldier.org/. To learn more about veteran-support services provided by STS, call 760-870-5338 for a confidential interview regarding eligibility.