The anxiety Christopher Majewski is often so overwhelming, even crowds of people at a mall can be too much for the 31-year-old vet.
Majewksi, who now lives in Oak Lawn, served two tours in Afghanistan with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division and now suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. To help cope, he was partnered with a service dog designed to aid him when the anxiety of a situation becomes too much.
"Before I got him, I was a wreck. I didn’t go anywhere," Majewski said. "Then, I got him. We went to church the other day. We go out to eat."
"And the nightmares ... jeez," he said. "When I have a bad nightmare, he's there. He's waking me up. He sleeps across my chest."
The pair ran into a bit of an issue in late November at a Palos Heights gas station, according to the nonprofit training facility that provided the dog. The attendant wouldn't let Buster into the station, citing a "no dogs allowed" policy and despite being made aware that he is a service dog.
Majewski and Pam Barnett of the Palos Heights-based Paws Assisting Wounded Warriors would like to turn what happened at the gas station into a teachable moment for the public, rather than fuel any sort of outrage. An attempt to reach the gas station's manager was unsuccessful.
“Ignorance is not saying someone is a bad person, but they don’t know and they better learn," Barnett said. "In two or three years, it’s going to be a lot of dogs.”
It’s not just veterans of recent wars that are looking for PTSD treatment. Surviving veterans from previous wars “who had been suffering for years” are stepping up, Barnett said. She believes hundreds of thousands of veterans will soon be diagnosed with PTSD.
The problems associated with PTSD have contributed to many living on the streets or in homeless shelters, Barnett said. They also lose contact with family and friends and the support that comes from them.
“Everybody becomes a trigger,” Barnett said. “And once they become a trigger, you can no longer associate with them.”
A “trigger,” Barnett explains, is anything that can set off the extreme anxiety that hits a PTSD sufferer. A building, the mall, and, in some cases, seeing people of a particular ethnic background, can become a trigger.
"The dogs never become a trigger," Barnett said.
Part of what the dogs do is to keep other people away, Barnett said. They’re trained to step in between the veteran and anyone approaching to act as a buffer. The service dogs are able to tell when the veteran is beginning to feel the anxiety and know when it's time to lead him out of the situation.
Doctors and researchers are trying to treat PTSD with drugs and other therapies. But, for many, the transition from the brutality of war to civilian life brings invisible wounds that don’t easily (or, sometimes, ever) heal.
PAWWs now works with five veterans, four of which have dogs. Buster is Barnett's first dog through the nonprofit.
"This is going to be something huge," Barnett said. Her plan, which is already going ahead, is to instruct veterans how to train the dogs and then have them teach other veterans. She hopes this domino approach will carry on. PAWWs will soon have 501c3 status and be able to accept corporate donations. They're also looking to expand into a larger facility in the area.
Barnett wants to remind people that the dogs are working and can't be petted while they are with one of the veterans. They also need to be accommodated in public places.
Editor's Note: The name of the gas station in Palos Heights that refused to allow the animal to enter has been intentionally withheld. Out of respect for the larger point about PTSD service dog awareness that PAWWs wants to make, the station will not be named on Patch.
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