JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — "He brings a smile to my face every single day," John Tappen says.
What a contrast to being tortured with nightmares almost every single day.
He's talking about Henry, a custom trained service dog he was given at K9s for Warriors, a non-profit, which pairs dogs with veterans battling PTSD.
Tappen served his country in Afghanistan and Iraq. "It was horrible. No one should see that stuff," he says.
He talks about his deep pride of his country, but that doesn't erase the dark images from his days deployed. He says "people's body parts" and other visuals just haunt him.
In fact, he's had thoughts of suicide.
"It was one of the things like a lot of pills or a gunshot," he says.
And the panic attacks? Torture during the daytime. "You can't breathe," he says. "You can't think."
One day, at the checkout line in Walmart, he just broke down.
"I sprinted out because I was so embarrassed and I cried in my car for 15 minutes, as hard as I've cried in my life," he recalls.
But then he found out about the K9s for Warriors program, the nation's largest provider of service dogs for military veterans.
Henry had already been trained for months by K9s staff. When John met Henry, he says there was an instant bond.
And those nightmares he used to have almost every single night?
"I haven't had one since Henry," John says. Almost like magic.
But it's not like the magic we see on a stage. It's the magic of science, showing there's something dogs can provide that humans can't.
K9s for Warriors is involved in research with Purdue University to show how service dogs actually affect the brain physiology of warriors with PTSD. Results so far show a positive impact from the dogs. The studies involve measuring cortisol levels.
K9s for Warriors has now graduated 700 veterans, with a 99% success rate at preventing suicides, according to Executive Director, Rory Diamond.
According to the VA, about 20 veterans in the U.S. take their lives through suicide every day.
The program has become so well-known that the applications to get in are piling up too high. "Unfortunately, we've now broken into 2025," Diamond says.
That means a warrior, who may be suicidal, has to wait four years to get a service dog through K9s. But a new mega kennel to train more dogs is underway in Nocatee, Florida. Diamond says it will cut the wait list from four years to two years.
If you'd like to donate, you can text K9Heroes to 41444 or go to www.k9sforwarriors.org.
On Veterans Day, your donations will be matched up to $200,000. If you give $50, you're actually giving $100.
First Coast News is hosting a telethon for K9s for Warriors on Veterans Day 2021. The money will go towards cutting down that long wait list.