Veteran Josh Walker of 101st Airborne questioned PTSD existence for six years before seeking treatment
Article by Ken Budd, courtesy of HumanAnimalBond.org
Before his dog Baxter changed his life, Josh Walker was suffering from night terrors. In 2005, Walker was deployed to Iraq as a cavalry scout in the 101st Airborne, enduring ambushes and firefights. The nightmares started when he returned home, along with hallucinations, fits of anger, and fear. He’d slam on the brakes when he was driving, thinking a roadside object was an IED. It took him six years to accept that he was suffering from PTSD, despite the concerns of his fiancé and family. But denial, he says, is common for many combat veterans.
“If somebody I respect could accept it, maybe there was some truth to this PTSD thing.”
“If you’re suffering from PTSD, it means you weren’t strong enough.”
“You’re trained that if something is wrong with you—physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally—then you’re worthless to the unit,” says Walker, 34. “So if you’re suffering from PTSD, your mentality is that you can’t admit it because it means you weren’t strong enough.”The well-meaning reactions of people at home can also be problematic. “People buy you drinks and pat you on the back and thank you for your service,” he says. “So for you to say, ‘I’m actually struggling really bad, I’m not sleeping, I’ve got anger issues, stress, depression’—it feels like it would devalue your contribution and sacrifice.”
His attitude finally changed when he read a blog by a Special Forces combat veteran about his service dog and his experiences with PTSD. “I thought, ‘If somebody I respect could accept it, maybe there was some truth to this PTSD thing.’” He eventually entered a pilot program at West Virginia University—where he was taking classes—for PTSD service dog training. That’s how he met Baxter, the Golden Retriever who changed his life.
“Baxter came barreling toward me and plowed me over and kept licking me and I was like, ‘OK, this is the one,’” he says.
Walker and then eight-month-old Baxter joined a Hearts of Gold training class and worked together for about 18 months. They’ve lived together for nearly four years.
“Living with Baxter reduces anxiety and stress.”
“He helps me sleep better,” says Walker. “Having him present reduces anxiety and stress. So if you’re at a restaurant or any big crowded space where normally you might be a little stressed, the dog diverts your attention from the anxiety. Just as the dog takes care of you, you need to take care of the dog.”
Baxter recently turned five, and he and Walker share the same birthday: July 28. In January 2017, Walker started his own branding and marketing firm, Recon Media in Plymouth, Indiana, which offers services ranging from web development to video content production (you can even sign up for emails and selfies from Baxter). Baxter is a frequent presence in the office.
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“Clients love him,” says Walker. “You can’t see a dog like Baxter and not feel better. When he’s walking by your side and licking you and making you laugh and putting his paws across your feet—it calms you down.” These days, Baxter provides comfort for everyone, from Walker’s wife Amy to their new baby girl. “We had the baby about six weeks ago, and if she cries, he gets worried. He makes us all feel better. He’s a constant in my life and my family’s life.”
Ken Budd’s writing credits include The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, CityLab, The Washington Post, AARP The Magazine and many more. He writes the “Everyday Heroes” column for The Saturday Evening Post and he’s the author of the award-winning memoir The Voluntourist. Ken’s work has won gold awards from the Society of American Travel Writers and the North American Travel Journalists Association. He has appeared on programs such as NBC’s Today, The CBS Early Show, and CBS This Morning, and he’s the host of 650,000 Hours, a new digital series that will debut in 2019. You can follow Ken on Twitter and Facebook.
Hearts of Gold raises, trains, and places dogs to assist people with disabilities. Based in Morgantown, West Virginia, the nonprofit organization provides the dogs with two years of training and conducts research to determine the most efficient training methods. Hearts of Gold partners with some of the top universities that use therapy dogs, including West Virginia University, Emory University, the University of California-Berkley, and Columbia University.