How canine therapy helped a 2-tour combat veteran beat PTSD

It is an absolute privilege and honor to share the story of a courageous woman veteran, mother and friend - Annette Whittenberger, U.S. Army Major, Retired. 

Throughout my military service, I was constantly astonished with how much of a toll deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan had on our military service members and families. The stories of women veteran mothers are even that more unfathomable, especially those stories regarding the single mothers whom I had met.

Two long deployments - one to Iraq and another one to Afghanistan - meant that Annette had to continuously battle multiple challenges in a very stressful career.  Not to mention - how can a mother even prepare two children to cope while she is gone for a year in harm's way?!? 

Any military career is a stressful one. But, Annette had to overcome the other following unique challenges:

  • Fight to excel in a male-dominated field artillery unit
  • Discover ways to nurture her children while she was in harm's way
  • Raise children as an Army officer in a combat unit

As someone who has extensively researched nervous system health over the years to find methods that could help relieve my pain, it didn't surprise me at all when Annette told me that she has also battled with suffering, as well. The chronic stress that she has endured in her life is unsustainable and I am so thrilled that she is focusing on a healing journey - one that has inspired her to help others coping with depression and anxiety. 

Thank you Annette for your sacrifice and for your courage to share your story.

A military career requires much devotion, dedication and sacrifice. How did you decide that this was the path for you? 

"It wasn't until later in life that I found out I had a grandfather and uncle who served in the military. I didn't grow up in the military and didn't know how military life would be like. When I was in high school, I almost enlisted, but I was too scared and didn't go through with it. When I attended Arizona State University, I sought out the Reserve Officer Training Corps ('ROTC') program and did that for 3 years until I decided to go ahead and try it out. At the time, I figured that I could fulfill my 3-year obligation and be done with it. Never did I fathom that I would have completed 17 years and 4 months.

I met my husband my senior year of college and he was already a commissioned officer. We got married 2 weeks before he moved to Germany for our first assignment. Once I was finished with my training, I moved to Germany, where we had our 2 children."

PTSD awareness is beginning to come up to surface since 20 U.S. veterans per day are committing suicide. Have you experienced any PTSD-related symptoms that you are willing to share?

"I have been battling anxiety and depression since after my first deployment to Iraq in 2005. My symptoms worsened after my second deployment to Afghanistan in 2007.

 After returning from Afghanistan, I was put on Prozac and the dosage has increased ever since. I tried to handle things on my own and wean myself off of medication, but that is when I would sink. I would cry and wouldn't want to move. I missed my daughter’s 10th birthday because I got in that mood. I lost it in 2012 when I scared her with my rage. I knew I wasn't getting better. I scared my daughter and eventually my children started to constantly ask me if I had taken my pills that day. In time, I came to the realization that I couldn't live like this."

From my military experience, I found that discussing mental health was frowned upon for a variety of reasons. What was your experience? Did you conceal your symptoms?

 "I did keep quiet because I was afraid of losing my top secret clearance. I was also warned that if I was referred to mental health, there was a risk that I wouldn’t be able to move to my next duty station, Fort Polk. Not moving, would have been extremely detrimental to my career.

During one of my appointments with behavioral health, I was told that I would have to be referred to a doctor in order to increase my medication dosage; this referral could have prevented me from moving to my next duty assignment which was scheduled within the next 60 days.  Therefore, I continued to keep my illness quiet and declined further treatment until after the move.

I did, however, seek counseling through military one source as long as they didn't tell anyone. In time, I 'hid' my appointments and made them seem like they were ordinary doctor appointments. And, I didn't directly talk to anyone about my health unless someone confided in me in which I would tell them that it was ok to seek help."

Your maltese Lulu is absolutely adorable.  How did you meet her?  

"While stationed at Fort Polk, LA, I worked in the G3 Training and Operations section. My boss (then), had a pair of Maltese puppies, one in which got pregnant. He saw how much I loved them and how happy they made me. When I received word that I wasn't selected for promotion for the second time, I was devastated. I locked myself in the bathroom and cried for 20 minutes. My boss knocked on the bathroom door, and said 'Whitt, come on, you’re coming with me to my house.' I went and held Lulu - she instantly melted into my arms. I knew I had to have her.

Weeks went by where I never thought I could actually take her home because I already had 3 fur babies. But, one day my boss offered her to me and I immediately almost cried. I took her home that same day and she's been my heart ever since."

How has Lulu helped you and your family?

"My family and I have been through many challenges while in the Army. My son had been having some teenage issues and was angry quite often. I, of course, was struggling with having to transition out of the Army and had only 6 months to do so. 

The love and affection that Lulu has given to us has changed our world. My husband, who didn't agree with having a 4th dog often 'steals' her from us and lies her down to cuddle with him. Petting her helps calm him down after a long day at work."

What is your relationship like with your other 3 pups?  

"I absolutely love my other pups. In fact, I have always grown up with dogs until I moved away to college. When I moved away, my mom kept our dog Dave. She had Dave from the time I was 21 until I was in my 30s. My mom brought Dave with her when she moved to Killeen, TX in 2005 to be with us while we were stationed there at Fort Hood. Unfortunately, Dave got sick and I had to put him down. It was one of the hardest days in my life.

A couple of years later, a neighborhood girl was giving away labrador puppies. Somehow we were able to convince my husband that we needed both sisters whom we later named Dakota and Riley. Riley passed away from Parvo in only a few months and Dakota passed away in 2013 due to seizures and really bad hip dysplasia. 

When Riley passed away, we rescued Harley, another lab, from a shelter to keep her sister company. Later, I adopted Dallas and another pup Teddy, whom we had found under our car in El Paso.

All pups have a love/hate relationship. When it comes to feeding time, no one looks at each other. When it comes to bedtime, they all sleep together. Every time the Army has to move us somewhere, the first question is: where will we live that will take all the dogs?  We will never separate them.

They have given each of us unconditional love. They give us the biggest show which includes howling and barking whenever we come home from work or school. Nothing beats that kind of affection. The pups are our family and we wouldn't be the same without them.

Is there anything different regarding your relationship with Lulu? 

"The main difference is that Lulu needs to be everywhere I am. She follows me everywhere and cries when she can't see me. She knows when I am having my moment and climbs up onto my neck and gives me that one little lick to tell me that she is there. She sleeps under the covers with me and presses herself right against my hip just enough to make me feel at ease. It's so strange how God gives you something or someone to let you know that he is there with you. I used to just want to give up sometimes. She is there to remind me that she and her siblings all need me. It's unexplainable unless you have a pet. They are my everything along with the other humans :)"

Would you recommend canine therapy to others?

"There is something about a pet that changes you. I knew that I needed to continue to be in this world because not only did my family need me, but Lulu and her siblings also needed me.  I would absolutely recommend canine therapy to anyone going through anxiety and depression. Lulu has helped me to want to go on with life. Being with her brings on a whole different meaning to life."

There is a stigma that a service dog has to be a large lab or german shepherd. What are your thoughts regarding this stigma? 

 "I used to think the same until recently. Within the last 3 years, I worked with a civilian in my unit at Fort Bliss who had a yorkie as his service dog. I was surprised. I asked questions and saw how this small fur ball helped his handler, his human. His human suffered from epilepsy and was trained to do so. Dogs are smart. You do not need a larger breed to help you.

Within the past 5 months, I have taken my little Maltese to a class for service dogs. I saw all breeds and they are all capable of doing the same thing. From German Shepard to a chihuahua. It was amazing. No matter which fur baby we decide to have, they are fully capable of being trained for their handlers who suffer from a variety of problems. I've seen it with my own eyes. So with that being said - my small dog, a Maltese, is fully capable of helping me through my PTSD.

We need to steer away from this stigma and be more open minded as we better educate others on what a service dog can do."

The PAWS Act of 2017 is an active bill; if passed, the bill will "direct the Secretary of Veterans Affairs to make grants to eligible organizations to provide service dogs to veterans with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, and for other purposes."

What would you want the House Veterans Affairs Committee and Subcommittee on Health to know about how to properly help veterans suffering with PTSD? And, should treatment options vary to better help female veterans?

 "Yes! I do believe that there should be different treatment options available to better help female veterans. We don't always suffer the same as males. We don't all deal with our own issues the same. I never realized how much my service dog has helped my family and me - until now.

Each 'case' is different and the Veterans Affairs needs to treat it as such. Don't be quick to dismiss the situation when it is brought to light. Many of us (both men and woman) hide our depression, anxiety, PTSD due to the stigmas out there which then lead to the inevitable because it wasn't treated properly."


You can read more about the various projects Annette is working on at Veteran's Story Project and A Wild Ride Called Life.  

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