Dog helps heal wounds of war: Veteran suffering from PTSD finds an anchor in canine companion

MASON COUNTY - Bill Campbell took a long pause as he searched for the right words to describe what happened to him in Iraq.

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He looked over at his wife, Domenica, who often tackles questions for him, especially when he's struggling to think of the answers.

Then Campbell reached down and brushed his hands against Pax, a specially trained yellow Labrador, whose mission is to help the Army National Guard sergeant heal after serving on the front lines of war, where he witnessed death, destruction and despair.

"It was a car bomb - shrapnel," he said, his voice trailing off. "I was at a place that was just outside the Green Zone."

Pax stays close to Campbell around the clock. He reminds Campbell to take medication. He can sense the onset of panic attacks, hallucinations and other symptoms of the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicts Campbell.

Pax even sleeps in the same room with Campbell and serves as "a reality check" during his frequent nightmares.

Campbell is the first veteran in the country to receive a companion dog through the Puppies Behind Bars' Dog Tags program. The New York City-based nonprofit organization works with inmates to train service dogs.

Although there are several programs that produce psychiatric service dogs, the Dog Tags program was established last year to raise companions specifically for U.S. servicemen and servicewomen injured in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We wanted to do something to thank our vets for serving their country," said Gloria Gilbert Stoga, who founded Puppies Behind Bars in 1997.

Heading to Iraq

Campbell, 46, was a biologist for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for 19 years. He served as an executive officer in the National Guard for nearly a decade.

When the war in Iraq broke out, Campbell volunteered to re-enlist. He said he wanted to be involved, even if that meant taking a cut in rank and pay and putting his life on the line.

"Because they had done so much for me, I felt I owed the military," he said.

"I felt if I did that, I might be able to help someone come back that might not otherwise come back."

During a deployment in 2004-05, he helped manage security at Forward Operating Base Prosperity for the 81st Brigade Combat Team. He endured numerous blasts and suffered two concussions from rocket and mortar attacks.

"These attacks were disturbing to me due to their frequency and their unpredictability," Campbell wrote in a statement for the De partment of Veterans Affairs. "Usually, given the urban nature of the environment, I could hear the launch of the weapon as well as the impact."

Campbell was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The military has classified him as 100 percent disabled.

He was awarded a Purple Heart for the shrapnel injury to his hand that he sustained just outside Baghdad, Iraq, on Nov. 7, 2004.

Although he has nerve damage from the shrapnel, many of Campbell's injuries aren't as obvious. He suffers from memory problems, is easily startled and has a crippling fear of crowds.

Until a few weeks ago, he rarely ventured beyond his house outside of Shelton, the barn where his horses are kept and doctor appointments at Madigan Army Medical Center at Fort Lewis and in Seattle.

"I pretty much was housebound," he said. "For the most part, I'd stay home."

Searching for support

Campbell learned about Dog Tags several m onths ago from his psychologist at the VA hospital in Seattle.

"My psychologist wanted me to look for more ways to get out," he said. "(Taking care of a service dog) forces you to get out and take him for walks."

After several months of doing interviews and exchanging e-mails, Campbell was matched with Stevi, a 17-month-old yellow Labrador, who was en route to a specialized school in Colorado.

But that didn't work out.

"Stevi had a meltdown prior to coming to Colorado," Campbell said.

So Campbell was matched with Pax, a slightly younger dog who, like Stevi, went through more than a year of specialized training that taught him to help a human companion cope with everyday stresses and challenges, as well as the fears PTSD brings.

Pax is on duty all day, though he often resembles a family pet. He's playful like a puppy, but he also is serious about his work. One of his main duties is guarding Campbell's back to help him feel safe.

"He's head and shoulders above most 14- month-old puppies," said Domenica Campbell, 44. "He doesn't touch anything he's not supposed to."

Pax was raised by an inmate at Bedford Hills Correctional Facility, about an hour north of New York City.

He lived in the cell with his primary raiser, attended weekly Puppies Behind Bars classes and stayed a few weekends each month with "puppy sitters" to learn about life outside the prison's walls.

The program - which has about 100 puppies being raised in seven different prisons - was designed to help inmates in their rehabilitation. Program organizers say they learn lessons in responsibility, teamwork and compassion.

In a letter for the Campbells, Pax's puppy raiser wrote: "Thank you for all the things you've done to serve and protect our country, and for all of the unfortunate incidents that led to your PTSD. I myself have PTSD so I have at least a minimal understanding of your situation."

After training at the prison, Pax spent time being "socialized" by families on West Point's campus. He also completed service dog training at the school in Colorado.

Before bringing Pax home Feb. 15, Camp bell went through two weeks of training with him. As part of the agreement, he and Pax will need to be "recertified" every five years.

Adding up training, food, boarding and travel costs, Pax is a $21,500 investment, Gilbert Stoga said.

Making progress

Since graduating from the Dog Tags program, Pax and Campbell have traveled on an airplane, frequented a Starbucks and dined at several restaurants. Last weekend, they went grocery shopping.

When he goes out in public, Pax wears a bright red vest that's covered with patches, including one of an American flag and another with the words "Please don't pet me, I'm working."

He might seem like a regular pet most of the time, but when he dons the vest, "he has a mind shift," Domenica Campbell said. And he's trained to watch Bill's back at all times, even when he's not wearing the vest, she added.

Pax is a natural people magnet - something Campbell said he hadn't expected.

"A lot of times, I feel a lot of stress and anxiety because of (the attention drawn by) Pax," Campbell said. "But I think that's part of the therapy. They want you to get out and experience that stuff."

Domenica Campbell said she has high hopes that the dog, whose name is the Latin word for "peace," will help her husband heal.

Though it has been only a few weeks, she already has seen changes in her husband. "He has the dog to think about now," she said.

Lisa Pemberton writes for The Olympian. She can be reached at 360-704-6871 or