Ryan Largeman is 28, served seven years in the Air Force and suffered multiple injuries two years ago in Afghanistan during his second deployment in the Middle East.
He prefers the term “shell shock” to post-traumatic stress disorder in describing the anxiety that overcomes him when confronted by loud noises, whether it’s a bottle hitting the floor or boards falling off a passing truck. “I hear fireworks and the first thing I think is: ‘Oh, god, incoming!’ ”
On Tuesday, Largeman became the first veteran accepted into a new Charlotte nonprofit program that pairs disabled former military members with a service dog specially trained to be a calming influence as they ease back into civilian life.
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Largeman’s new constant companion is an 18-month-old blue tick hound named Duke, who loves pepperoni and likes to stand on his back legs and hug people.
“I feel like I’m with my best friend,” said Largeman, as Duke licked his face. “I love this guy.”
Charlotte Bridge Home launched the program as part of its mission to help returning veterans transition home after military service, including connecting them to social services and jobs. The Oasis Shriners, which has 6,000 members in Western North Carolina, is pledging $50,000 annually to buy and train the dogs. And the nonprofit Dogs Doing Good, will handle the months of required training.
“I’d say half our members in Western North Carolina are former military, from World War II to service in Afghanistan, and helping veterans is a matter close to our heart,” said George Wilcox, who is on the Oasis Shriners board of directors.
“This money will be raised from golf tournaments, bake sales, car shows, you name it. We supply a lot of money to Shriners hospitals, more than any other Shrine Center around the world. But this (service dog program) is a local investment we want to make.”
Another dog is already in being trained as a companion, and a third is awaiting training, he added.
Charlotte Bridge Home officials say they’d like to see five to 10 veterans a year matched with dogs, if enough funding can be found. Costs to buy and train a dog can range from $5,000 to $20,000, said Blake Bourne, director of community initiatives for Charlotte Bridge Home.
“There are thousands of returning veterans in the 50 western counties of North Carolina. In addition to the many severe physical injuries that our veterans have received, there are a disturbingly large numbers of veterans who are experiencing severe mental trauma,” Bourne said in a statement.
“Medical professionals have determined specially trained service dogs can dramatically improve the lives or our veterans.”
Largeman, who is looking for work, has a form of PTSD called hyper-vigilance, which is an enhanced state of alert to anything reminiscent of threat or trauma, including sights and sounds.
Unlike most of the vets who’ll be paired with dogs, he and Duke actually knew each other prior to the program. In fact, Largeman adopted Duke and then asked for help having him trained. That training included not only helping the dog ignore distractions, but teaching it to “read” when Largeman is going through a period of anxiety. At that point, the dog makes it a point to maintain physical contact.
It took six months for Dogs Doing Good to train Duke.
“He was a Dumpster dog that had been taken into a foster home, but he couldn’t stay there. That’s when I got him,” said Largeman, noting the two were together six months before Duke’s training began.
“You could say that I saved him, but he’s saving me. I didn’t see him during that period he was training, and I really missed him. It’s like this guy can read my mind.”