U.S. Army veteran James Poling has been struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder for 15 years.
However, it only took three weeks in early July for Poling and his newest companion, a black Lab mix named Rogue, to forge a relationship Poling hopes will serve as an anecdote of hope, healing and second chances.
Poling, 40, of Friendswood, traveled to Ponte Vedra, Fla., to participate in K9s for Warriors — a three-week program for veterans who suffer from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and military sexual trauma, by training them to heal through the use of service dogs.
“My therapist was the one who suggested I get a service dog from the organization,” Poling said. “K9s for Warriors was absolutely amazing; from the facility to the staff and volunteers.”
After joining the Army on Sept. 21, 1999, Poling was deployed to Camp Casey in Korea for one year after graduating from basic training at Fort Benning, and advanced individual training at Fort Gordon, both in Georgia.
Afterward, he went to Fort Lewis, Wash., where he stayed for the duration of his military career and from which he was deployed with his unit to Iraq in 2004, Poling said.
“I really don’t remember when I was diagnosed with PTSD, but when I returned in 2005, I knew something was different with me,” Poling said. “I was able to go to school while working and get two college degrees. I worked up until 2011 — and then everything fell apart.”
Poling, who also is a single father of two, lost his job, his wife, wrecked his car — and lost his house.
He and his two children are living with his parents in Friendswood, and the addition of Rogue is slowly, but surely, putting things back together again, Poling said.
“I’ve been in isolation since 2011,” Poling said. “I didn’t realize how much the PTSD was slowly affecting my life until everything fell apart.”
The duo became inseparable during the three-week instructional program, which also included other warrior-dog teams from across the nation who acquired 120 hours of specialized training and certification as a service dog team.
Rogue, who was rescued from a high-kill shelter, spent months with a professional trainer who taught her the required commands for service dog work. She’s now able to assist Poling with his daily tasks to encourage his PTSD recovery process.
“Having Rogue out in public helps me,” Poling said. “I focus on her, and not everything else around me.”
K9s For Warriors has the capacity to pair 144 warrior-dog teams a year, said Rory Diamond, CEO of the nonprofit organization.
Diamond, who also lobbies on Capitol Hill to gain support for the PAWS Act, has facilitated a major research project in collaboration with Purdue University to provide evidence that service dogs are a viable PTSD treatment option.
“The empirical evidence of the efficacy of service dogs in treating the symptoms of PTSD is clear and overwhelming,” Diamond said. “Veteran suicide is an epidemic, so the time for action is now. We need the support of lawmakers and our communities to help our heroes heal.”
Visit www.k9sforwarriors.org for more information about the program.
Poling, who also is a disabled veteran, hopes to get back to work someday. But for now, he’s taking it one day at a time.
“People just don’t understand what we go through on a daily basis,” Poling said. “Our struggles are inside of us, and people can’t see our injuries. Hopefully, veterans will start getting the help we need.”