Meet Jason and his Service dog, Tonka
Jason is one of our injured veterans with both physical and psychological injuries which are result of his service. Read his story .
Tonka, a yellow lab chosen from a shelter, and a fully trained Service dog from This Able Veteran (TAV), came to live full time with Jason, Beth and their daughter Alivia on April 1st 2012. To an outside observer, Tonka looks like an ordinary dog. To Jason, though he is a focus point, a calm presence and an answer to the desire to obtain what couldn’t be accomplished with 5 years of traditional therapy. To Beth, Tonka is a second chance at marriage and an answer to her hope and faith that her man can be a husband and a father again.
Jason, like many veterans returning home from overseas suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While serving in Iraq, a run-in with an IED coupled with other head injuries added a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) to the long list of other war related ailments such as shoulder, back and knee afflictions. Jason will tell you that the man he was when he went off to war was not the man who returned. Not just physically, but mentally as well. Before his two tours, his ability to handle stress and function as an all around center of strength to his family was his job. Handling his daughter, life as a soldier, and a wife who was given a diagnosis of cancer, Jason was the rock on which his family could count on.
That was then.
After Jason returned home, but before Tonka arrived, toys left out on the floor by Alivia were to Jason like unknown objects that may, or may not, explode. That would start a chain reaction in his mind to continually find more things wrong with the house, with his wife, with his daughter. The fits of rage and emotional abuse to his family were followed by Jason becoming reclusive where he would isolate himself from the world for days or weeks at a time. Struggling to cope with life back home, Jason attempted all the treatments offered to veterans. He participated in group and individual therapy, inpatient treatment, biofeedback studies, and even medications. Each met with failure and a reminder that his life would never be the same. Jason often told his wife that she was going to have to decide if this was the type of marriage she wanted to stay in, because he could not foresee any hope of recovery.
“There are no extraordinary men...just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.” Admiral William Frederick Halsey Jr.
The couple, still attempting to gain some normalcy, began researching online for a family dog. While looking online, a phone call came from Jason’s current TBI case manager. She knew he was looking for a dog and recommended he contact Behesha Doan at This Able Veteran. Jason remained doubtful, but to his wife Beth, it was hope.
Months before Jason called This Able Veteran; Behesha Doan received another phone call from an Animal Shelter Director 80 miles away who believed she had a suitable candidate for the TAV training process. Behesha made a trip to visit the shelter and upon first sight stated that the dog looked like a Tonka Truck. After thoroughly evaluating and assessing him, Tonka was admitted into TAV’s program.
Months of training at TAV’s facility went into Tonka and a dozen other Service dog candidates. TAV’s trainers patiently taught them how to gain and sustain eye contact, how to brace for balance, retrieve objects, remain focused under strong distraction, to exercise what Behesha calls “self control that is self imposed.” A memory that stood out during Tonka’s training was the Service dog’s ability to read people and his desire to connect. Tonka wanted his own person. The trainers recognizing this with all the Service dogs are sure to not spend too much time with any one animal during the training. Behesha says at TAV they are working from the knowledge they are building a platoon of 2. That platoon is always one Service dog and one Veteran.
Matching a dog to a veteran is a careful and precise process. Recalling her first meeting with Jason, Behesha recounted she was sure at any moment the man before her, in his current temperament, could start throwing chairs and turn over the desk. Less than a handful of dogs were picked out as possibilities. Several days passed, a few dogs were tried, but the right match wasn't among them. On the fourth day, that energetic yellow lab found at a shelter was matched to Jason. Looking back, Jason laughs about it now. The family started out searching for a family dog and, as he says, they are still waiting for one. Tonka and Jason share a bond that only someone with a Service dog can know. Tonka is HIS dog.
Over the months that followed, Jason learned to work with Tonka and even help in the end stages of his training at the TAV facility. By learning to see life through Tonka’s eyes, and maintaining his focus on Tonka’s work, Jason rediscovered a focus and a drive to succeed. He saw a personality change in himself that normal therapy and medications could not produce. This was different, this was not failure, this felt like … progress. And Beth noticed as well.
“Don't wait for extraordinary opportunities. Seize common occasions and make them great. Weak men wait for opportunities; strong men make them.” Orison Swett Marden
The training with Tonka allowed for Jason to rediscover his strength of leadership and learned to fix his attention on his Service dog. The attention was reciprocated as well. Due to the TAV training, Tonka can now recognize when Jason’s mood starts to slip by patterns in facial expressions. Jason stated that those previous weeks in torment spent in isolation are now reduced to a half an hour with Tonka. And the ability to sleep, which was once a nightmare itself, has improved dramatically and is preceded by his nightly ritual of brushing Tonka’s coat. Reaching down and feeling Tonka’s groomed fur allows Jason added peace when falling asleep at night.
Jason recalls a conversation he had with Behesha. Tonka, for a brief period was acting different, not as responsive, and he couldn’t understand it. She said “Keep your focus on Tonka’s needs. Get back to basics.” Jason realized that her words went beyond his relationship with Tonka. He began to practice his growing ability to direct focused attention toward his wife and his daughter.
Beth says she is slowly getting her husband back. His wife has become optimistic, not just hopeful.
Jason and Beth say that TAV treats not just the veteran, but the entire situation. “The program doesn’t forget the families of the veteran. The trainers are amazing and the people are there for you. The amount of work done is at a great cost to all involved at TAV.” Jason says of his own personal experience “It’s not easy, but it’s fun and I love it!”
Through their own experiences, Behesha and Jason (and others like him) understand that the opportunities granted and the needs filled for this type of Service dog training are worth all the effort. The costs in time and resources are great, but the results are worth it.
“True heroism is remarkably sober, very undramatic. It is not the urge to surpass all others at whatever cost, but the urge to serve others at whatever cost.”