The old adage about dog being man's best friend has special meaning for a Brooklet man who returned home from serving his country with a heavy load on his shoulders.
Retired United States Marine Cpl. Josh Donaldson suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from what he endured as a Marine serving in Afghanistan, but a dog named Abram is his medicine.
Through a program that trains and provides service dogs to soldiers in need, the SD Gunner Fund, Donaldson received Abram, a black Labrador retriever, about three weeks ago. The nonprofit agency assists veterans and disabled children with the financial side of obtaining and owning much-needed service animals, and Donaldson was united with Abram during a ceremony recently at The Dog Spot in Ellabell.
The Iraq War veteran joined the Marines in 2008, served in Afghanistan in 2011, returned home in 2012 and, after shoulder surgery, was discharged in 2013, he said.
He came home, but much of what he experienced in Afghanistan returned with him. The daily stress of war and other disturbing experiences caused Donaldson to suffer from PTSD, which the National Institute of Mental Health (www.nimh.nih.gov) defines as a mental condition developing "after a terrifying ordeal that involved physical harm or the threat of physical harm" and causing symptoms such as "flashbacks - reliving the trauma over and over; physical symptoms like a racing heart or sweating; bad dreams, frightening thoughts, feeling emotionally numb or feeling strong guilt, depression, or worry."
Dogs like Abram are trained for special needs, said Kaila Donaldson, Josh's wife.
"He knows commands like ‘watch my six,' meaning to watch my back," she said.
This is comforting when her husband is "hyper aware of everything and can't shut that off," she said.
"The dog helps him deal with the stress."
Having Abram around is also another responsibility - in addition to the couples' 3-year-old daughter, Laila, and her boxer, Rocky. The added responsibility helps Donaldson focus, he said.
"I don't sleep, feel like I am always on alert, and it overloads your mind," he said about his disorder. "Being very stressed for so long, going three to four days with no sleep catches up with you."
When Donaldson fidgets or paces, Abram notices and goes to work. He wakes his master from bad dreams and licks his hand to remind him he is fidgeting.
"That's his way of telling me to straighten up," he said. "It's not something I know I am doing," but Abram notices.
Like other service dogs, when Abram has his vest on, he is all work and no play. The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 allows Abram to go wherever Donaldson goes, and people usually know not to pet the dog when he is working, he said.
But when the vest comes off, the 8-month-old puppy is all dog.
"He lays with Rocky, and my daughter loves on him," Donaldson said.
Kaila Donaldson said having Abram around helps her as well.
"If my husband is able to relax and be happy, then I am happy, too."
SD Gunner Fund
The SD Gunner Fund was started in 2014 by Britnee Kinard, who began caring full time for her husband, retired U.S. Army Sgt. Hamilton Kinard, as he grappled with PTSD and recovered from physical wounds sustained during an explosion in Iraq, according to a release from the organization.
"Through a series of events, Britnee Kinard grew frustrated with a system that failed to meet the needs of her husband, a Purple Heart recipient and father to two boys, one of whom has autism spectrum disorder," according to the release.
After working for 18 long months to get Hamilton Kinard's service dog, Gunner - for whom the nonprofit agency is named - Britnee began her quest to help other veterans and children in need, ensuring they'd never wage the battle alone.
"Service animals require a variety of necessary items, including vests, custom harnesses, veterinary visits and more. They are trained to support individuals with mobility, hearing, psychiatric and brain/neurological disabilities ... (and) to meet the individual needs of their partners and complete a variety of tasks," Britnee Kinard said. "Each time we're able to pair a service dog with a veteran in need, the feelings of gratitude and accomplishment are amazing. To help a family along in their healing journey is so important and worthwhile. SD Gunner Fund is thrilled to be able to help Josh Donaldson and his family. We know Josh and SD Abram will be a wonderful match."
Donations to the SD Gunner Fund are tax-deductible. For more information on the nonprofit, which depends on donations from financial supporters to continue its mission, visit www.sdgunnerfund.com
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.