Set of paws saves veteran with PTSD

Wheeler showing scars from combat (Source: KAIT)
Wheeler showing scars from combat (Source: KAIT)
Wheeler shares his struggles with PTSD (Source: KAIT)
Wheeler shares his struggles with PTSD (Source: KAIT)
flags waving outside Wheeler's home (Source: KAIT)
flags waving outside Wheeler's home (Source: KAIT)

JONESBORO, AR (KAIT) - After suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a local veteran found peace of mind in a fur-ever friend.

Chris Wheeler spent many years in the Army and has many stories to tell and scars to show for it.

"In 2003 I joined the Army and did my training at Fort Benning, Georgia," Wheeler said.

Back then war was war, according to Wheeler. Just months later, he was deployed.

His first stop was Kuwait City, Kuwait. He then made his way to Mosul, Iraq, where he spent a year living in the sand.

"There was no time to waste. We went right to work," he said.

Wheeler trained to clear buildings and that is where he saw war for what it was.

"I was there just 9 days before I got blew up in an IED attack," Wheeler said. "It was normal, loud noises, smoke, dust to the point of darkness. The dust settles, and there we are."

The intensity of war came with the job of protecting his country. He said ruptured eardrums, concussions, and seeing dead bodies became a part of everyday life. The sound of convoys exploding also seemed normal.

"It was my job, I was in the moment, I got used to that lifestyle and, unfortunately, I brought a piece of it home with me."

He served 10 years in the military with two tours overseas, but he said the real war began when he came home.

"I could vividly see the events playing back while I was sleeping, I would get angry, I was always so angry," Wheeler recalled. "I've woken my wife up, she was visibly shaken and afraid that I would do her bodily harm. At this point, I just dealt with it. I had no idea."

He tried to live a normal life again, but he couldn't keep a job and outings with his family seemed to be too much of a task.

"I wouldn't leave the house," he said. "I would tell my wife and kids, you guys go, dad is staying here. It was at that point my wife said you have got to do something, you are not living a normal life. I was self-medicating. Alcohol played a big factor."

The alcohol was just a band-aid, Wheeler said. He finally mustered up the courage to see a psychiatrist. That's when he learned he was suffering from PTSD, commonly found in soldiers who've come home from combat.

Wheeler said the prescribed medication did not do him much good. The days grew long and the nights longer.

"Then my psychiatrist recommended a service animal," he said. "Never in a million years did I think I would call an animal my best friend, but let me tell you."

His first service dog was Bailey. The Wounded Warrior Project trained Bailey but shortly the dog retired.

That's when Scout, his new service dog, came into the picture. Wheeler said Scout is more than just a band-aid and changed his life forever.

"Scout's a rescue dog," he said. "Scout probably thinks I saved his life, he saved mine. Well, maybe we saved each other's."

Scout went through a lot of training to help get Wheeler back to where he was pre-war, according to the dog's trainer, Michelle Hill.

"I train with positive reinforcement and teach the dog and handler to be a team," Hill said. "Their attention has to be on their handlers at all times."

Scout has learned skills that can help alert Wheeler when he's having a flashback, panic attack, or an outburst. Suddenly, Wheeler does not feel alone anymore, which is also something Hill said service dogs pick up on.

"They give independence back when we've lost it," Hill said. "They can wake their handlers up from nightmares when they notice the signs that we teach them."

Scout is the missing puzzle piece that Wheeler could not find for years.

Finally, Wheeler can go everywhere now, he even took a trip to Disney World with his family.

"There's no way I could have done that a couple of years ago, I always thought someone was behind me," he said. "I could not do it, but I can now. He's going to take care of my six. He's always going to have my back."

Wheeler does not want his story to go unnoticed. He said there are so many veterans struggling for a piece of mind like he once did.

If his story can save one veteran from committing suicide due to the effects of PTSD, he did his job.

"PTSD does not go away, I still deal with it, but I have Scout and I have my life back," he said. "So can other veterans."

The U.S Department of Veterans Affairs collected veteran suicide statistics in each state. In 2014, 100 Arkansas veterans took their own lives. That same year, 207 Missouri veterans committed suicide.

Wheeler said if one veteran dies of suicide, that is one too many. He wants other soldiers to know there is help out there.

"Reach out, there are programs out there that will pay for these animals for you," he said.

One local organization, the Beck PRIDE Center, provides and trains service animals for local veterans. You can contact the center at 870-972-2624, or visit its website. The center provides many other programs for local vets.

"A dog saved my life," Wheeler said. "I never thought I would say that. It might sound odd, but my dog is my best friend."

Copyright 2017 KAIT. All rights reserved.

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