Statistics from the Veterans Administration have shown that every day, 22-men and women who have served our country commit suicide. The non-profit Patriot Paws in Rockwall, Texas aims to curb that by pairing service dogs with veterans.
The idea is to use dogs to help veterans cope.
Aaron Mixler is one those Veterans. His dog Chief, is his best friend, in more ways than one. "We started out with the hat because it falls all the time," he says as he drops his hat. "Uh-oh," he signals to Chief. "Because it falls all the time, so that with my blind eye and my traumatic brain injury, I don't have to put my head below my heart anymore, it's huge."
Huge, in more ways than one. "It's the stuff you don't have to ask for that changes your life, I've fallen down the stairs where he's caught me on the way down or gotten help for me or the nightmares you are having, and he jumps up on the bed and lays across and is just there for you."
Before Chief, Mixler had a hard time coping. "I was in 3 different PTSD hospitals," he says, "before I ever stopped abusing alcohol and actually being a husband with my wife."
But a meeting at Patriot Paws changed everything for the twenty-year combat Veteran.
"Everywhere you are at the V.A., you are a number," he says, adding, "your last 4 of your social. The first day I walked in here, you are treated like a person and you get hugs when you come in and they make you feel like part of the family."
Mixler, like every Veteran who walks through the doors at Patriot Paws, is put on a list for one of the dogs. Because the dogs have to be trained, and there aren't many on hand, the wait list right now is as long as 5 years.
"People are really really having these depressions. It's easy to say get over it and do your thing but saying it and doing it are two different things," he says about how difficult daily life can be.
And the father of six knows how desperate the wait is, it can be lengthy and lonely. "Not that i wanted to kill myself but it's very clear that life with my children and wife would be better without me being a problem."
He's volunteering with a new program at Patriot Paws. "VFP, Veterans for Paws," he says, "is service members like myself that either have a dog or are on the waiting list for a dog and we do ambassador programs. We get on the phones and remind them that we are here and that there's a place to hang out."
Because he wants Veterans like him to see, "Year ago today I was barricaded in house, now I go to my kids football games, I am involved in their scouting. Things that we didn't think they had with dad, or be able to get back with dad. Um," he says glancing at his dog with a smile on his face, "and Chief has made all that difference"
The Veterans for Paws program welcomes Veterans from all over Texas to stop by, to volunteer, or just to spend time with the dogs, and visit with other veterans.