Save a shelter dog, save a veteran: That's the goal of the new Beaufort County organization Operation Saving Jake.
Founder Justine Crowell of Port Royal wants to train abandoned dogs to be service animals for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or other disabilities, and her idea isn't just a theory.
She has lived it, first with her own rescue dog, Maximus, then with her late fiancè, Air Force member Jacob Thompson.
Crowell, diagnosed with PTSD because of a traumatic event unrelated to combat, discovered that her rescued white boxer Max would comfort her during anxiety attacks by jumping on her lap, licking her face and nuzzling her. Crowell, a certified trainer who works at PetSmart in Bluffton, had Max registered as a psychiatric service dog in 2010.
When Thompson returned from multiple combat tours with severe emotional and physical disabilities, Max would soothe him during visits to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, she said. Crowell declined to release Thompson's rank, citing security clearance reasons. She said his experiences caused frequent flashbacks that could become violent, but when Max was around, he was calmer and had fewer attacks.
When she attempted to get Thompson his own service dog, she found waiting lists at similar organizations were years long and that buying a service animal was too expensive.
A PTSD flashback triggered a heart condition, which caused Thompson's death in October. Crowell, who believes a dog might have kept him alive, vowed to prevent other families from going through what she did. With two others, she incorporated Operation Saving Jake later that month.
Other members of the group have their own reasons for joining.
Co-founders Matthew Deno and Daniel Jayne are both active Marines and dog lovers.
And Rebecca Gay, the director of canine operations and an independent dog trainer, discovered the therapeutic effect of animals by volunteering at Heroes on Horseback, a Bluffton-based nonprofit organization that offers equine activities to the disabled.
"I'm just convinced that through a relationship with animals, people and the animals benefit," Gay said. "People can become much more of a part of society, pursue their goals and dreams a lot more effectively, and I think (animals) have a bigger role to play than just house pets."
The organization is applying for nonprofit status and liability insurance before it begins seeking dogs for the program. Gay will lead temperament testing -- exercises to ascertain, among other traits, whether a dog spooks easily or is comfortable around humans and noises -- to identifying candidates at local shelters.
Each animal will be trained from nine to 18 months for obedience and to provide emotional and physical support. The group wants the dogs to serve veterans with both PTSD and impaired mobility. The group said it will also accept requests from those who haven't served in the military.
Crowell said companionship is a chief benefit of service animals for those suffering from depression or other mental illnesses. During her darkest days, she was afraid to leave the house. When Max came along, she began going out into the world more often.
"People with PTSD tend to withdraw and isolate," Crowell said. "Just going out to the mailbox to check their mail is a huge step. If they just had a dog, it sounds so simple, but it would make all the difference."
Beyond soothing their owners, dogs trained for psychiatric support can fetch medications, call emergency services or keep bystanders from approaching when a flashback has the potential to become violent. If their owners become uncomfortable in crowds or in unfamiliar places, a command of "exit" to service dogs will lead them out of the location the same way they came in.
The group at Operation Saving Jake has been attending events across the state and around the country to network with other organizations that help wounded veterans and animals. The group also is raising awareness about service animals for psychiatric and emotional support, with a goal of promoting the message that not all injuries are visible, Crowell said.
Crowell is training another rescued dog for her use as Max approaches canine retirement, but she is eager to begin working with animals that could help others.
The Humane Society of the United States estimates that 60 percent of dogs in shelters will be euthanized. A February study by the Department of Veterans Affairs said the suicide rate for veterans is higher than previously thought: About 22 veterans take their own lives every day.
"I want to make sure than no family has to go through what I went through with losing Jake," she said. "This, for me, is like therapy."
Follow reporter Allison Stice at twitter.com/IPBG_Allison.