WASHINGTON — Dave Sharpe was troubled by thoughts he couldn't share after he returned from serving in Iraq. "I found myself waking up in the middle of the night, punching holes in walls, kicking and beating the refrigerator door," he said.
Then one day, the former Air Force senior airman went with a friend to a local pit bull rescue and took home a puppy, Cheyenne. Next time he found himself kicking something, "I saw this puppy, cocking her head, looking up at me, like, what are you doing?"
Finally, Sharpe had someone he could open up to. "I froze, I put down my drink, I picked her up and laid with her in my bed," he said. "I cried and I told her the whole story. I didn't feel judged."
The experience inspired Sharpe, of Arlington, Va., to start Pets2Vets, a group that pairs veterans with homeless pets by arranging adoptions of shelter animals. It has made two or three matches a week since its start in October.
One of the goals of Pets2Vets is to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder. Sharpe says that while a few groups provide veterans with service dogs, many PTSD and traumatic brain injury patients don't qualify for these programs. Even when they do, because of the stigma still attached to psychological problems, they may hesitate to apply.
But Cheyenne showed that even a "regular" dog can work miracles, Sharpe believes, and former Army Staff Sgt. Will "Ace" Acevedo agrees. Acevedo took Xena, a Jack Russell mix puppy, home to Fayetteville, N.C., at the beginning of December.
"She's done wonders for me," he says.
Diagnosed with PTSD in 2003, Acevedo says that medication can only do so much. Xena gives him something else to think about instead of feeling sorry for himself, and with an energetic puppy in a house with brand-new carpets, he's got plenty to concentrate on.
"Instead of you focusing on yourself and your battle wounds, you focus on the dog," he says.
And like Sharpe, he says, "I talk to her. I tell her how I feel. She looks at me like, don't worry buddy, everything's going to be all right, and she licks my face."
Currently, veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center and the D.C. VA Hospital are adopting pets from the Washington Animal Rescue League, where staff help make the right match. Ray Crook of Suitland, Md. says that when he visited the shelter and talked about what his family wanted in a dog, the staff brought out Meyer and "it was love at first sight."
After just a few weeks, Meyer, a medium-sized shepherd-Akita mix, "feels like he's been part of my family for a very long time," he says. The dog loves the grandchildren, but he's also especially attached to Crook, who says "I should have named him Shadow — he follows me everywhere."
Crook, a former Army sergeant who has diabetes, says his long walks — and talks — with Meyer are good for his health.
"I take my medication for depression, but he's really healthy for me mentally and spiritually," he says.
Washington Animal Rescue League director Gary Weitzman says the partnership with Pets2Vets was an ideal fit for their organization, which has in the past worked with veterans at nearby Walter Reed on an individual basis. Pets can be matched with vets up to two months before their discharge date and make weekly visits with them; there are also volunteer opportunities to spend time with shelter animals, for soldiers who can't yet be matched with pets of their own.
It's a win-win situation for the shelter and the vets, Weitzman says: "We provide them a healing environment, to continue their recovery, but they also help our animals, many of which are recovering from traumas themselves."
With the success of their pilot program, Pets2Vets plans to expand early next year to additional shelters in the D.C. area and then across the country in partnership with local veterans organizations.
Sharpe says that his long-term goal is to also extend the program to police, fire and rescue, and victims of natural disasters and other traumas. While helping the estimated 10 to 12 million cases of PTSD in this country, he says, "imagine saving the lives of that many dogs and cats."
Of course, Sharpe would add that it's not just the animals who are being saved.
"She saved me," he said of Cheyenne.