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Submission For The Record of David E. Sharpe, Chairman of the Board, Pets2Vets

INTRODUCTION

Madame Chairwoman and members of the subcommittee, I would like to thank the subcommittee for the opportunity to submit my written testimony. I applaud the ongoing efforts by Congress to address issues facing active duty servicemen and women, veterans and emergency first responders such as PTSD, TBI and other mental health issues.

MY STORY AND THE FOUNDING OF P2V

My name is David E. Sharpe. I am 32 years old and served in the U.S. Air Force Security Forces for six years (1999—2005) where I endured several incidents that, I thought, didn’t affect my personal relationships with my family, friends, and colleagues. A short time after my first deployment to Saudi Arabia during November 2001 in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, I encountered a one-one confrontation with a Taliban sympathizer pointing his weapon in my face during Entry Control Point Checks. A second incident occurred in 2004 while I was on patrol in the country of Pakistan and noticed two suicide bombers directly outside the base perimeter (razor wire) with a ladder (used to cross the razor wire) and a belt of explosives strapped to one of the men’s chest while pointing at the chow hall area. One could only believe that these two men were planning to fulfill a successful suicide bombing attack against U.S. military personnel.

Upon my return from my first deployment in March 2002, I began to act violently towards my family, friends and myself – all symptoms of my being diagnosed eight years later by the VA with having PTSD and depression. I found myself waking up in the middle of the night with cold sweats, random crying, having outbursts while blaming and questioning myself how I had handled the life-threatening situations I had found myself in. However, my life would get much worse before it would improve.

I finally hit bottom on the bedroom floor of my apartment. I sat, legs folded, ready to finish the fight with the demons that had followed me back from the war zone: the sudden rages; the punched walls; the profanities tossed at anyone who tried to help me. There was nothing in my room other than dirty Air Force uniforms, some empty bottles of alcohol and a crushing despair. I took a deep breath. I shut my eyes and closed my lips a little tighter around the cool steel of my .45. And then something licked my ear. I looked around and locked gazes with a pair of brown eyes. Cheyenne, my sheltered dog, cocked her head to one side—it was just one of those looks that an animal gives you. It was a look like: What are you doing? Who’s going to take care of me? Who else is going to let me sleep in your bed? For a long minute, I stared into the puzzled face of my 6-month-old pit bull mix. And then slowly, reluctantly, I backed the barrel of my .45 out of my mouth. There is no doubt about it; I owe Cheyenne my life.

Immediately, I felt so relieved, like a 10,000-pound weight had been lifted off my chest. Soon after, my family and friends noticed a significant change in my behavior—a reduced number of outbursts, better attitude, no more suicide attempts—all because of this little pit bull mix puppy. Cheyenne’s heroics were in her unconditional love and devotion to me—the devotion and love that most pet owners can attest to. It’s interesting that a torn-eared puppy from a shabby animal rescue saved me. Not my father (a retired 32-year U.S. Army RANGER) or my grandfather (a PT Boat Commander in the South Pacific during World War II) or a friend. It was Cheyenne who was the force that pulled me back into society. I couldn’t talk to anybody – not my father, not the counselors – but I can talk to my sheltered dog, and she never judges me. Eight years later, my father stated, “He’s [me] a different person now. All that stuff was taking over his life. That dog [Cheyenne] just listened to him for hours.”[1] But all that time I had suffered in silence.

For the first time in January 2010 (with the help of a friend), I walked into the Washington, D.C. VA Hospital to seek additional help in my life. The process to determine my having PTSD and depression was very frustrating; however, it was worth the time. I will admit that there was some fear of speaking to a human for the first time about my military service and I was somewhat apprehensive. But, Cheyenne helped me become an extrovert, and telling another person or persons proved to not be so difficult as I thought it would be.

One year later, on January 11, 2011, I married Jenny Fritcher, an Air Force staff sergeant stationed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. My wife will be discharged from active duty and join me in Arlington, Virginia in August 2011. More importantly, we’re expecting our first child in January 2012—I credit all of this to my sheltered dog, Cheyenne. Through the unconditional love of my sheltered dog and my training her to perform basic manners (e.g. sit, stay, nudge my hand when I get hyper vigilant) I became resilient and am now a productive member of society, working as a Program Analyst in the Intelligence Community.

Because of Cheyenne and my belief that other veterans could benefit from animals like her, I set out on a mission in October 2009 with only $2,500 in my savings account to create the nonprofit organization, Pets 2 Vets, or P2V (www.P2V.org).  P2V pairs active duty military, veterans and emergency first responders dealing with the stress of their service with shelter animals as part of their healing process. This innovative and enterprising organization proves that an outside-of-the-box concept can help others like me in a very short time and is somewhat grounded in science.  A July 2011 study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology revealed that pet owners had greater self-esteem, greater levels of exercise and physical fitness, and they tended to be less lonely than nonowners.[2] These are exactly the qualities needed by veterans with mental health disorders, and my goal is for P2V to aid them in their recovery while at the same time saving our nation’s shelter animals.

Today, P2V has aided dozens of our nation’s heroes while finding loving homes for shelter animals in just under its first two years of operation. The organization currently serves veterans by using volunteers who are trained by a VA licensed clinical psychologist. The volunteers pick up the veterans from their homes (rural areas included) and transport them to P2V-partner shelters to adopt or visit animals of their choice – the VA doesn’t have to provide the facility, and veterans are removed from the monotony of a hospital environment. P2V also provides transportation for veterans by its volunteers in rural areas to visit or adopt shelter animals. P2V pays for or its partner shelters waive adoption fees, supplies a gift card for necessary pet equipment (leash, collar, feeding-water bowls and crate), and pays for the veteran’s first two years of pet insurance (Banfield Pet Hospital Wellness Plans; located at 770 locations nationwide), and basic manners training. Finally, veterans are provided multiple options in the selection of a companion animal (dog or cat). In conjunction with the appropriate health care services, the entire P2V process allows veterans to feel a sense of self worth and accomplishment that helps lead them on the road to becoming a productive member of society.  For example, Marine sergeant Jimmy Childers, recipient of a shelter dog named Tidus stated, “Tidus isn’t going to be fetching my [prosthetic] leg for me or anything. He’s here to bring joy into my life, and he does that every day.”[3]

PROPOSED LEGISLATION

H.R.198, Veterans Dog Therapy Training Act, introduced by Reps. Grimm (R-NY), Michaud (D-ME), King (R-NY) and Lance (R-NJ) provides the assessment of addressing post-deployment mental health and PTSD symptoms through a therapeutic medium of training service dogs for veterans with disabilities. P2V supports the concept of such legislation but is concerned that the bill is too narrowly drafted to benefit a large number of veterans.

Currently, the legislation only allows for a pilot program to assess the effectiveness of the training of service animals on the mental health of veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or other post deployment mental health conditions.  However, as we have learned over the years, the VA needs all available resources—a toolbox of sorts—to address the mental health crisis facing our nation’s veterans.  Therefore, P2V recommends the committee broaden the scope of the bill to encourage the VA to partner other community-based service/companion animal programs already in existence and review their effectiveness on the well-being of veterans in need.  P2V as well as many other organizations can provide successful and inexpensive models that can augment traditional services as well as serve as alternatives to conventional care.

In conclusion, while many veterans do require the assistance of a highly trained service animal and could benefit from training such animals, most veterans with whom I have spoken simply are looking for the companionship of an animal to feel acknowledged and accepted.

My sheltered dog is the sole reason why I am here today. Furthermore, my dog has allowed me to grow close relationships with my family and friends with the help of the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, and I believe that other veterans can benefit from the same type of companionship.  I appreciate your time and the opportunity to share my personal experiences with having PTSD, educating you about P2V and making recommendations on H.R. 198.

[The attachments are being retained in the Committee files.]


[1] Dogs’ devotion helps heal vets’ inner wounds; The Washington Post; June 23, 2011; Steve Hendrix.

[2] Journal of Personality and Social Psychology; Friends With Benefits: On the Positive Consequences of Pet Ownership; July 4, 2011; Allen R. McConnell, Christina M. Brown, Tonya M. Shoda, Laura E. Stayton, and Colleen E. Martin

[3] Dogs’ devotion helps heal vets’ inner wounds; The Washington Post; June 23, 2011; Steve Hendrix.


PsV has neither obtained nor accepted any Federal grant or contract in FY 10 and FY10.

David E. Sharpe
Founder and Chairman
P2V
July 20, 2011