11:14 PM

The Most Under-Rated Benefit A Veteran Could Have

Chris June, a Jackson EMC Gwinnett District lineman, is in a unique position to relate to the concerns and issues of veterans dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He comes from a long-line of family members who have served in the military.

June’s grandfathers both served - one served in the Korean Conflict in the Army Air Corps and the other retired from the Air Force, where his father also served; his aunt and uncle are Marines, and another aunt served in the Air Force, and an uncle was a Marine. The oldest of five brothers and one sister, June enlisted in the Army when he turned 18 on Valentine’s Day, 2002. By November, he was fighting Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan, stationed at Bagram Airbase and other firebases throughout the country as part of a specialized team attached to a special forces unit.

After serving a year-long deployment, June returned home and joined AMVETS. However, he quickly discovered a need for local services for local veterans. To meet this need he, along with Michelle and Joe Walker, a military family in Auburn, helped form Military Veterans of Georgia (MVG) in 2010. Based in Winder, MVG provides a local, hands-on approach to helping veterans return to civilian life.

June knows how difficult returning to civilian life can be. Nationwide, 22 veterans die from suicide every day. He also realizes the healing power his own dogs provide for him, especially in dealing with triggers from his combat experience. “I have three 70-pound dogs—so the four of us act as one ThunderShirt during Fourth of July fireworks. Fireworks can be triggers for dogs just like combat veterans,” said June. (ThunderShirts are calming vests that apply gentle, constant pressure for dogs.)

The average waiting period for a military service dog is three years and costs between $7,500-$25,000, which is prohibitive for most veterans. So June helped develop MVG’s signature program—Operation Atlas in 2014. MVG works with local shelters to find potential dogs and with local trainers to create military service dogs for local veterans. The average training time for a military service dog is 12-24 months.

Once the dog completes basic training, the dog is paired with a veteran, and they participate in advanced training together for the specific needs of the veteran. Local trainer Rachael York is able to train for specific behaviors applicable for veterans with PTSD, such as alert & distract when a dog senses when the veteran becomes stressed and alerts the veteran by nudging his/her hand or leg thereby providing a distraction. “The veteran then strokes the dog, which is calming,” said York.

"We have a comradery of veterans at Jackson EMC. Even though we may be generations apart, we gravitate to each other."

Veterans can use their own dogs for a training cost of $1,000. If the veteran doesn’t have his own dog, Operation Atlas can provide the dog for a cost of $2,000, which covers veterinary bills, food, housing and supplies, in addition to the training fee. However, veterans in financial need are never denied based on cost. “We offer volunteer opportunities so veterans can earn the dog,” said Michelle Walker.

One of their greatest needs is foster families for the dogs-in-training. “We’ve found dogs at local shelters. We’ve found trainers. But we need more foster families who can support the program,” said June.

“We’ve placed or trained eight dogs for veterans in two years,” said June. “These dogs enrich the lives of veterans with PTSD on a daily basis. They help ease anxiety. It’s a cool feeling to see how a dog changes lives. Dogs can sense anxiety. PTSD alters quality of life, so having a service dog helps returning veterans live a normal life.”

These service dogs are increasing quality of life for many veterans, including one Iraqi war veteran, who has traumatic brain injury and severe PTSD. “He is now able to live with fewer debilitating flashbacks thanks to a service dog we trained and gave to him,” June shared.

An avid outdoorsman who takes his dogs hiking, fishing and boating, June looked up from petting his dogs, smiled and said, “A dog is the most under-rated benefit a veteran could have.”

 For more information or learn how you can help, visit www.operationatlas.com