A Veterans Day story: Touching 2 lives at once
David Campbell II tries to forget many of his days B.C. — Before Caleb.
The Chandler man, and no doubt others in Tempe and nearby cities, was bitter, angry and mistrustful, felt betrayed and “alone in the universe,” as he describes it.
He was plagued by substance abuse and suicidal thoughts.
Campbell, a U.S. Army private during operations Desert Storm and Desert Shield in Iraq, suffered a traumatic brain injury from a grenade blast in 1991. Just 19, he came home with physical and mental disabilities from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn’t want to be labeled PTSD,” said Campbell, now 48. “I didn’t want to be called crazy, and I didn’t want any help.”
But years later, following an ultimatum from his wife that he turn things around, Campbell accepted help from a recovery center for addicts. He gave his life to God and has been sober for nearly eight years.
Figuring prominently into that success is Caleb, a beautiful, shiny-coated black Australian sheep dog-Labrador mix, who, at just a year old, had been sheltered at the Yavapai Humane Society in Prescott.
Caleb and Campbell were paired through Soldier’s Best Friend, a nonprofit that since 2011 has matched nearly 300 U.S. armed-services veterans and active-duty service members in Arizona with shelter dogs.
Its mission is to help those living with combat-related PTSD or traumatic brain injuries and at the same time reducing the state’s pet overpopulation problem.
Soldier’s Best Friend adopts dogs from 15 rescue groups and shelters and relies on volunteers to foster the animals for 2 to 4 weeks before the qualified veteran and dog begin living and training together.
The dogs are spayed, neutered, vaccinated and receive veterinary-recommended preventative medications before placement.
Depending on the needs of the applicant, the dog is trained and qualified as a service dog or a therapeutic companion dog/emotional support animal.
Training, which includes basic obedience, public outings and tasks specific to each veteran’s symptoms, occurs for at least six months at facilities in Phoenix, Tucson, Sierra Vista, Prescott and Flagstaff. Dogs already owned by veterans also may be qualified for training, routine veterinary services and most supplies. Placement and training fees are free to eligible applicants.
In 2019, Soldier’s Best Friend provided 2,400 hours of training to person/dog teams, and rescued 179 homeless dogs in Arizona.
There isn’t enough research to demonstrate that dogs help people with PTSD, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ National Center for PTSD. Its study on the issue is due to be released in January, a spokesman said.
However, Brenda Muir, executive director of Soldier’s Best Friend, is a believer because countless veterans have told her about the difference dogs have made in their lives.
“Some say they wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t gone through the program and didn’t have service dogs,” said Muir.
She notes a recent spike in Vietnam War-veteran applicants who powered through life, but once they retired, “things started bubbling to the surface.”
The trained dogs can perform tasks that some veterans cannot do independently, such as retrieving dropped objects. They can remind them to take medications, and assuage panic attacks, anxiety, flashbacks and irritability.
For Campbell, Caleb is his “battle buddy,” a good listener and lifesaver for not only his owner, but also for the homeless and incarcerated people whom they visit to share their inspirational story.
They speak at churches and schools, too, and received the 2017 Volunteer of the Year award from the Mesa Chamber of Commerce.
“Before I got him, I didn’t talk to you, I had a mean look on my face, I wouldn’t leave my house,” Campbell said. “He broke down that wall in me. He’s truly a miracle.”
The 80-pound canine can wake Campbell from his persistent nightmares by pressing his weight into him, and he gives hugs by placing his front legs around his owner’s neck.
Because Campbell also suffers from hypervigilance, a common PTSD symptom causing a person to be on alert and in protection mode, Caleb stands guard between his owner and the person behind them in line, say, at the grocery store or bank.
Campbell, who lost his left leg in an auto accident, can use Caleb safely as a brace to get in and out of his wheelchair.
When Campbell is experiencing anxiety while in traffic, Caleb knows to put his wet nose on his owner’s cheek.
“That brings me back to where I am supposed to be,” he said.
To learn more about applying for, donating to or fostering a dog in the program, visit soldiersbestfriend.org or call 623-218-6486.