When the walls shrink and the panic sets in, Specialist Mike Ballard reaches for his service dog, Apollo, to help him get through his worst symptoms of the post-traumatic stress disorder that is a remnant of an explosion in Afghanistan that ended his career as an Army medic.
"The room starts to breathe in and out. You get really dizzy and instantly sick to your stomach," Ballard said, describing his worst symptoms. Apollo, a 2-year-old short-haired collie, is always near Ballard, so that when an episode begins, "I can just sit there with him and pet him."
"It starts lowering my blood pressure and I get more focused simply petting his fur," he said. "There was a point when I had to see my psychiatrist at least once a week, and now with Apollo, the anxiety level has come down so much she's only on an as-needed basis."
Ballard, 41, was just a few months into a tour in Afghanistan in August 2009 when the Stryker in which he was riding rolled over the top of a roadside bomb. The explosion broke the medic's right femur and destroyed his left knee. He had emergency surgery in Kandahar before being flown back to the United States, and is now a part of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, which helps injured soldiers recover from their physical and emotional injuries from war.
Ballard received Apollo through a program that's been in place at the battalion since 2009. Last year, the base partnered with Bellingham-based Brigadoon Service Dogs to bolster the effort to pair dogs with soldiers returning from combat who suffer from postwar side effects, including PTSD.
So far, 12 dogs have been placed at the base, six of which came from Brigadoon, but officials hope to see that number increase as more soldiers learn about the program and the number of dogs being trained increase. Brigadoon, which has provided service dogs to the civilian population since 2004, expanded to veterans last year, and has now partnered with the state Department of Corrections for a pilot program that has prisoners training dogs for the first six months before they return to Brigadoon for specialized training.
That training program at Cedar Creek Corrections Center, which has been in place a few months, is currently training five dogs.
Because the wait time for a dog is usually around a year, the hope is that by outsourcing the early training to the prisoners, more dogs will be available for soldiers.
Ballard heard about the base's service dog program after he was diagnosed with PTSD, and started the training process after meeting Apollo about a year ago. It wasn't until Apollo graduated from his training earlier this year that he went to live with Ballard full time.
Because Ballard has issues with walking, Apollo helps keep him balanced, and also picks things up off the ground for him. But more importantly, Ballard said, Apollo is keenly attuned to how he feels.
"He's my battle buddy now," Ballard said. "He's got my back and I've got his."
There are numerous programs across the country that provide service dogs to soldiers, and in January, the Army released an official policy regarding service animals and the use of dogs by service members. The policy, which is still under review by the Army Surgeon General's Office, includes requiring that eligible service members receive training from approved organizations before getting a service dog, and requiring service members to provide a care plan to their commander.
"Our policy is supportive of the use of service animals in treating physical disabilities as well as PTSD," said Maria Tolleson, a spokeswoman for the United States Army Medical Command.
Ellen Bloom, the chief of behavioral health for the Warrior Transition Battalion, said that the idea of service dogs for soldiers returning from war was first discussed in 2008 by officials at Madigan Army Medical Center, which operates the battalion at the base just north of the Washington capital of Olympia.
She said that it evolved from the use of therapy dogs who occasionally met with soldiers to the current program, in which service dogs live with the soldier.
Bloom said that the benefit to soldiers is significant.
"They sleep better, they interact with people better, they go out in public more," she said. "Once they get their dog, it's almost like they're a different person. It takes the focus off of what they're experiencing."
Brigadoon founder Denise Costanten said that in addition to the five dogs at the prison, five others are in advanced training. She said that takes up to two years to train a service dog, and costs about $20,000. All of the dogs that have gone to veterans have been donated.
By having the prisoners help with the early training months of the dogs, she said she'll be able to put more dogs out to veterans, and she hopes to see the program double.
Ballard said that while the explosion in Afghanistan changed him forever, being with Apollo helped him find a new goal for his future. Once he retires from the Army in the next few months, he plans to raise and train dogs so that other soldiers don't have to wait so long to get one.
"I can't go back to any of the things I did before," he said. "I had to dig deep and find something new. After getting Apollo, I know my new purpose."