AP NEWS

The road to recovery: CSRA group provides free service dogs to veterans in need

February 9, 2019

When Alecia Kimball sits down at a table in a cafe, her English springer spaniel, Sadie, immediately lays down at her feet.

“She let’s me know when I get too amped up, and she’ll provide a barrier for me,” Kimball said, giving Sadie a pat. ”…She’s a good girl.”

Kimball wasn’t immediately diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder after leaving the U.S. Army, where she served as an MP (military police). After leaving the Army, she served in law enforcement for several years.

″…Down the road there’s a trigger that will set it off,” Kimball said. “For me, it took my sons leaving the house and going out on their own to lead their own lives, and I was like, wow, it’s quiet in here.”

Kimball detailed her struggles in a book she published, ” The Continuous Journey,” where she wrote about having panic attacks, anxiety, mistrust and nightmares where she was “screaming or frozen in fear.”

“It happens without warning,” Kimball wrote in her book. ”…That’s why I stopped going anywhere for a long time. Just to avoid that awful feeling of thinking I’m going to die.”

After going for treatment through the VA in Augusta, Kimball’s therapist told her about an organization in Evans, Georgia, that might be able help her.

That was how Kimball learned about Veterans K9 Solutions, a nonprofit run by Jerry Lyda, CEO and co-founder of the organization.

“Our organization puts veterans with mental issues like PTSD, MST, TBI together with dogs in shelters, or anywhere we can find the dogs that will meet our expectations,” Lyda said in an email. “These dogs will be trained as service dogs by us and the veteran together.”

The group recently was featured at a meeting of the Aiken Newcomers’ Club.

Newcomers’ Club First Vice President Linda Slinger said “everybody loved it” when they came and an additional $1,000 was raised at the meeting for the organization.

Lyda said veterans are not charged for the dogs they train, since they have already “paid the” with their military service. Aiken County Animal Control assists with securing rescues for the organization.

Sadie is trained to recognize cues such as fidgeting, sharp breathing and tone of voice to indicate an impending stressful episode.

“It’s so important to go through it (the training) with them, because it’s part of the healing,” Kimball said. ”…It took me a long time to figure that out.”

Training also strengthened their bond, which Kimball said requires “extreme trust.”

Lyda’s organization provides an invaluable service to many veterans, particularly pre-Sept. 11 vets, as post 9/11 veterans are usually given priority. Waiting lists for trained service dogs can be extremely long, and securing one can cost thousands of dollars.

“We take all veterans regardless of when they served,” Lyda said. “I, being a Vietnam-era veteran, am tired of this group being slighted. All veterans need help.”

Sadie also helps Kimball educate businesses on how to interact with people who have service animals. This is becoming an increasingly problematic issue with people falsely claiming their pets are service animals or emotional support animals so they can take advantage of waived fees and regulations barring normal dogs from stores and public transportation.

Kimball said this is “frustrating” for people with real service dogs, as it casts doubt on whether their animals are legitimate. Fake service animals are often poorly trained and have been known to attack real service dogs, who are naturally submissive.

“I think the problem, too, is that stores are scared to death to ask, because they’re afraid of a lawsuit,” Kimball said. “Ultimately, if it’s a service dog, if it behaves inappropriately, it can be asked to leave, too.”

A bill was introduced in the South Carolina House of Representatives last year to lessen the “increasing number of occurrences” involving fake service animals. It is currently in committee.

Kimball is hopeful service dogs will become more accessible to pre-Sept. 11 veterans like herself. While there are still “ups and downs,” having Sadie has helped her greatly.

“When I started trusting her and using her more, then it helps us to get out,” Kimball said. “She stays alert to everything going on around me, and it makes me feel better… She’s my best friend.”

To donate or to learn more about Veterans K9 Solutions, visit veteransk9solutions.org, or call 706-832-4144.

Kimball’s book can be found online at amazon.com.