If Memphis veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or a traumatic brain injury (TBI) want to receive a service dog, the process can be stressful and costly. And until recently, the groups that paired veterans with service dogs were located far away.
But a new local organization, The Paul Oliver Foundation, is changing that.
Oliver, a Marine who suffered from PTSD and TBI, loved animals. But in December 2013, he accidentally overdosed on medicines he took to treat his conditions.
The Paul Oliver Foundation co-founder Amanda Butler said she and co-founder Kimm Harris heard about Oliver after his death and wanted to honor his memory.
"He was really trying to get better," Butler said. "He wanted to help veterans that were suffering the way that he was."
At first, they considered holding a fundraiser and donating the proceeds to a local charity, but then they found a gap in assistance for veterans — service dogs.
"I truly believe he was alive longer because of his dog, Scout. He wasn't an actual service dog, but he did so much good for Paul," Butler said.
Butler and Harris researched service dogs and what it would take to start an organization. Now, the Paul Oliver Foundation is trying to find trainers willing to donate their time for the all-volunteer organization dedicated to providing service dogs to veterans suffering with PTSD and/or TBI. The foundation will deal entirely in rescue animals, pulling them from shelters and placing them into training for their new human companion.
"We felt a real calling to provide those service dogs to people in this area," Butler said. "I think the closest [other organization that provides service dogs] is in Mississippi, which is still pretty far away."
Without any assistance, a service dog can cost up to $22,000, and insurance often doesn't cover the cost of service dogs, despite their proven effectiveness in lowering anxiety, blood pressure, feelings of paranoia, and the indirect benefit that comes with owning a dog. The Veterans Administration (VA) is looking further into service dogs as a viable treatment. Currently, the VA is collecting subjects for a study to research the effects of a service dog in the treatment of PTSD.
In Memphis and Shelby County, there are currently around 59,000 veterans, and more are coming back from deployments. According to the VA, between 11 and 20 percent of veterans from the post-September 11th war era are diagnosed with PTSD. For the Gulf War in the 1990s, 12 percent suffer from PTSD. Vietnam War veterans have the highest percentage, estimated at around 30 percent, though only 15 percent are actually diagnosed.
The Paul Oliver Foundation plans to bring the veterans in during the dog-training process and start the bond early between recipient and dog. This also helps train the dog to specifically address certain issues, like security sweeps of the house before the owner enters, fetching medicine, or reacting to a panic attack.
"Paul was very involved in helping his fellow Marines," Butler said. "He had a real heart for helping the people who were in the same position he was. We really felt like this was the best way to honor him, [taking] what he really had a heart for and help the people who are in this area."