Service dogs help veterans battle their own war.
Captain Jason Haag spent 13 years in the Marines, including tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I got shot twice and blown up twice, so don’t cross the street with me,” he jokes. “I’m pretty bad luck.”
After sustaining a machine gun injury and multiple traumatic brain injuries (TBI) during service, Haag struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), leading him to be medically retired from the Marines.
He took 32 medications—12 of them narcotics—and spent the better part of 18 months locked away in his basement at his lowest point.
“I didn’t want to see the sun,” Haag admits.
Fortunately, he contacted an organization that provides veterans with service dogs, a decision that connected him with a German shepherd named Axel and brought him out of the darkness.
As a result, he founded Leashes of Valor in 2017 with fellow veterans Danique Masingill and Matt Masingill. The Virginia-based nonprofit connects veterans around the country with trained service dogs to help mitigate PTSD and TBI symptoms.
In honor of Veterans Day, Haag, Danique Masingill and Maggie—a 9-month-old Labrador in training—visited the University for a panel discussion and Q&A presented by the Jefferson College of Nursing and Jefferson Center for Injury Research and Prevention. Haag and Masingill also received the inaugural JCH Hero Award at the event for their contributions to improve lives and positively impact their communities.
The presentation held a special place in Dr. Marie Ann Marino’s heart, she noted during her introduction. The College of Nursing dean and Navy Reserve Nurse Corps veteran discussed her close ties with those serving in the military and public service: Her son just graduated from West Point, and her husband was a New York firefighter on Sept. 11.
“I understand wholeheartedly the ravages caused by global conflicts,” Dr. Marino says. “Oftentimes, it’s the silent injuries that are most impactful. It’s because of this we have to educate nurses, physicians and all healthcare providers about veterans’ health and that many injuries sustained by service members cannot be healed by surgery or medication.”
Service dogs trained through Leashes of Valor can read the signs of a pending anxiety attack and then sooth or provide a distraction, Haag explains. For example, if a veteran starts to rapidly tap his foot, the canine will place her paw on his knee, move in toward his lap or even lick his face depending on the attack’s severity. Dogs also can recognize people in the throes of a nightmare and wake them up with either a lick or a gentle bite.
Thanks to his service dog, Haag came off all his medications and got back on track. He sees Leashes of Valor as a way to provide similar hope to veterans in need.
“Axel saved my life,” Haag says. “No doubt about it.”