The year was 2013. To say the Flaville family was walking on eggshells around husband and father Ron would be an understatement.
Since his return home after multiple deployments in Iraq and a 2013 medical discharge, his wife Kellie and their three young, boisterous kids had to navigate his mood swings and volatility, and always remember to keep the noise level down, never touch him when he was asleep, and never surprise him.
Meanwhile, in her words, Kellie was acting as Ron’s “service human.” He couldn’t handle the noise and unpredictability of crowds, so Kellie did all the errands and shopping for necessities, and managed the kids and the household while holding down a full-time job and staying in a permanent state of high alert.
Kellie knew her husband needed help. But he was resistant. The prescription drug of choice for discharged soldiers with his symptoms was antipsychotics, but he had stopped taking them because he didn’t like how they made him feel. He was annoyed by the process of cognitive therapy, and immersion therapy was out of the question; it actually made his symptoms and nightmares worse. He had been offered a desk job by the military but would have actually preferred to re-enlist, because truth be told, he was most comfortable and felt of greatest use in the heightened, high-stakes environment of deployment. But that was no longer an option with PTSD and injuries to his head, neck, and shoulders.
Kellie was no stranger to living with PTSD. Her first husband and her aunt, both Marines, had suffered from it. But she was at the end of her rope—exhausted from taking over for Ron, and from the constant fear of an unexpected burst of rage or panic from him. She loved her husband but it took the threat of divorce to make him see how perilous the situation had become. His wife and his kids did not feel safe around him.
Damian Watson, Licensed Clinical Social Worker at K9 Partners for Patriots and a veteran himself, has seen firsthand the problems caused by PTSD and the strain it puts on relationships. He has also seen how advice or help offered with the best intentions can be misinterpreted, even hurtful. The key, Damian says, is “education—educating vets and loved ones about where the extreme reactions of PTSD come from and how to manage and understand them.” Between group and individual counseling sessions, Damian helps vets and their loved ones learn how to communicate their pain and their needs while respecting the other’s feelings. The vet’s service dog may be in attendance at these sessions. The dog’s response to their vet’s spiraling emotions helps the vet become more self-aware, while it deepens the pair’s bond.
For Kellie, the nudge she and Ron needed came in the form of a chance encounter—with a woman who was managing her PTSD with the help of a service dog. After that conversation, Kellie spotted a car sign for Stillwater Dog Training, which led her to Mary Peter (a gifted dog trainer and the future founder of K9 Partners for Patriots). Despite some initial resistance on Ron’s part, he ultimately found the resolve to become Mary’s first patient. It changed both their lives—because it became one of the reasons Mary moved her focus from training dogs for civilians to training dogs to assist military veterans. It has become her life’s work.
About Ron’s growth, Mary said, “I watched Ron evolve from the man that didn’t want to get out of his vehicle on the first day to the man that took on everything I taught him with his dog. Ron worked hard with his service dog and was able to go from isolation to socialization with his family and others once again. He is a testimony to the power of a service dog as medical equipment for PTSD.” Ron is now K9 Partners for Patriots’ CEO.
If you would like to learn more about the lives being changed at K9 Partners for Patriots, call them at (352) 397-5306 or make an appointment to visit them at 15322 Aviation Loop Drive in Brooksville.