By Peter St. Cyr
Photo by Kitty Leaken
Clandestine patrols in the Iraqi desert took a toll on former Army Staff Sgt. James Stanek’s soul. “Roger that,” he confirms, almost saluting. The dangerous missions wreaked havoc with his mind. War in the Middle East, he says, changed him. It left him broken, tattered, worn down and feeling completely rewired. Stanek enlisted in the infantry after watching both World Trade Center Towers fall. After rushing to Ground Zero to help fight fires, the union ironworker from Long Island quickly signed up for basic training outraged at the terrorists’ inhumanity.
During a trio of tours in the Middle East, the non-commissioned officer spent nearly every waking moment on high alert. He became an expert at identifying improvised explosive devices, or IED’s. Whether it was jumping out of a C-130 Hercules with a parachute strapped to his back or driving along foreign routes, Stanek learned to scan the countryside with his hazel-colored eyes looking for threats. “It was the only way to survive,” he says. When Stanek spotted a dead cow awkwardly staged on the side of a road, he knew it was rigged with a bomb. Suspicious wires coming out of the heifer’s carcass left no doubt.
“If we’d tripped them, my men would all be dead. Blown up,” he says.
Detecting threats took months of training, but survival on the battlefield depended on Stanek staying focused. Seemingly on guard in Rio Rancho three years ago, Stanek, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) a few years earlier, thought he’d recognized another potential threat. This time it wasn’t coming from the rear end of a bovine or from the barrel of a sniper’s rifle. “I saw a plastic bag in the middle of the street,” he remembers.
Instinctively, Stanek went into action. He remembers reaching for a radio. In his mind, it was urgent he summon bomb technicians to the scene to disarm the perceived weapon before it harmed civilians. But he couldn’t locate a walkie-talkie in his truck. Instead, the only signal he got was from his well-trained service dog, aptly named Sarge, who he says was vigorously licking the side of his neck and nudging him with her wet nose. “Sarge senses my anxiety triggers and alerts me,” he says about the cue to settle down. “There really wasn’t a threat.”
The fully disabled vet hasn’t faced any deadly threats since he was removed from combat zones and sent to Brooke Army Medical Center’s trauma center to undergo routine hand surgery in 2008. Doctors in San Antonio discovered Stanek wasn’t just suffering from broken bones. They determined he’d also suffered a traumatic brain injury. “One of the doctors just walked into my hospital room and told me I was combat ineffective,” Stanek says.
There had been too many firefights, too many explosions and too many close calls. He wouldn’t be heading back to war. Stanek’s dream of being a professional soldier was over, but his anxiety attacks were just beginning. Army physicians prescribed medications to help him rest, but nothing seemed to ease his mind or erase memories of war. “Some things went down in Iraq,” he says unwilling to share details of his combat missions. “That’s my cross to bear.”
Confined to a hospital, Stanek was kept up at night by mental stressors. His medical team experimented with different pill combinations, including Seroquel, trazodone and Ambien, but nothing helped the brave infantryman close his eyes. For months, there was no rest. There were no dreams of happier days. Stanek, it seemed, needed a miracle.
His miracle came when hospital administrators allowed him to spend time with a therapy dog who’d visited his ward several times a week. Together with the pooch, Stanek would head to a commons area to play. It was exactly the therapy he needed. Nurses found him sprawled on a couch sound asleep with the dog lying on his chest.
After being released from the medical center, Stanek landed a ranch job in Bandera, Texas. Working as a hunting guide and outfitter, Stanek says, he kept thinking about his experience with the therapy dog at the Army hospital.
While Jim was still in the hospital, he and his then-girlfriend Lindsey discussed getting a dog as a pet. When Lindsey returned to her home in South Carolina, she noticed Sarge outside of a PetsMart, “and just knew in my gut that that was his dog,” she says. Lindsey texted Stanek, still in Texas, a picture of a “bouncy” puppy, then-named Cricket, to his cell phone. Stanek remembers thinking, “That’s my dog.”
He called Lindsey and told her to change its name to Sarge. Knowing him, she already had. From the minute he laid eyes on her, Stanek says, Sarge never left his side for four years. “Through all the ups and downs, all that dog has ever wanted to do is help me,” Stanek says. The miracle of dog therapy, he believes, is rooted in the animal’s pack mentality and ability to be assigned tasks in a family unit.
“If I’m in a bad mood, Sarge jumps in my lap. If I’m in a good mood, then she’ll jump around and act like a nut just like me,” Stanek says. “If I’m sick, she’ll lie in bed and console me. They’re known as man’s best friend for a reason.”
Well, almost best friends. Stanek decided to marry Lindsey. Together the couple moved to New Mexico in 2010. Jim wanted to have a service dog, but pre-trained service dogs were expensive. Out-of-pocket expenses range from $10,000 to $60,000, and Stanek didn’t have that kind of money in the bank. A few months later they launched Paws and Stripes, a nonprofit organization in Rio Rancho that provides war-tattered men and women a chance to get back on track. Stanek and Sarge, whom he fondly refers to as “my dork,” were the group’s guinea pigs. The techniques they learned after leaving the ranch have become the basis for Paws and Stripes’ unique program—where veterans are sponsored by donors. Already suffering from PTSD or traumatic brain injuries, the vets pay nothing for their dogs.
Each dog is rescued from a local animal shelter. Along with five employees, the Staneks collect donations to cover training costs. In the program’s first year they raised under $100,000, but over the course of the second year, the program collected nearly $200,000. None of that money came from the Veterans Administration, which cut off funding for PTSD service dogs last year. Rescuing dogs, hand-picked by each vet, is a key program component in Paws and Stripes program—especially for veterans who are often still dealing with losing their buddies in war. “It’s hard to bounce back from that,” Stanek says, remembering his own miraculous connection to Sarge.
In an odd twist, the veterans believe they’re saving a stuck dog’s life. But Stanek already knows the veterans are about to find out it’s the dogs that are actually saving them. Most of the veterans, he says, have a preconceived idea about the kind of dog they want. Some want a Labrador retriever or a German shepherd. Others, Stanek says, think they want a male or female dog. It rarely works out that way. “It’s interesting to watch them meet the dogs in a bonding area,” Stanek tells us. “The vet is usually pretty tense, but then you see their shoulders begin to drop.” Stress relief is already underway. “After some time, their heads pop up and they’ll tell us, ‘I’ve got my dog,’” Stanek says.
A fair number of pairings, he claims, are “love at first sight.” After adopting their dog, the new teams head to orientation at Paws and Stripes, where everything in the 6- to 12-month training program is customized for each veterans’ particular needs. For instance, Stanek says he didn’t need Sarge to help him turn on his lights or help him cross a street. Rather, he is prone to anxiety attacks, and the dog provides him separation in a crowd. “People give dogs extra space, and I personally need about six feet,” he says.
The real miracle of the program’s process, Stanek insists, is learning how to work together like a two-person squadron. Most people can teach a dog to sit or stay. Some even get their pets to rollover or fetch a newspaper, but service dogs adopted by Paws and Stripes’ clients have a professional mission. It’s not as easy as slapping a vest on an animal and calling it a service dog. “They have to learn how the dogs can help them,” Stanek says. “It’s not a cookie-cutter process.”
No matter how you cut it, medical-alert and mobility dogs are beginning to get respect. Mental health experts believe the dogs are in demand because of their ability to help veterans cope with hyper-vigilance, night terrors and flashbacks. Coping is essential when you consider that more than 500,000 American combat veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD upon their returns from Iraq and Afghanistan. Suicides in the veteran population are at near epidemic levels. An average of 22 former service members, and one active duty member reportedly commits suicide each day. The number of self-inflicted deaths has risen 20 percent since 2007.
Concerned about the soldiers, U.S. Senator Charles Schumer (D-NY) has expressed concern about veterans getting their disability benefits quickly. That, he says, has led to needless deaths. Now Schumer wants the VA to reconsider paying for PTSD-trained dogs, but that won’t happen until more clinical studies are completed. The Staneks say they understand the VA needs proof before it can change its policy, and they’ve partnered with Integrative Counseling Services of New Mexico to collect program data. Both are confident that treating mental illness with dogs will prove effective.
For now, the couple believes a veteran’s companionship with a dog and the medical assistance that dogs provide are priceless. For Paws and Stripes’ clients, a service dog is a better route to health than just swallowing a mouthful of prescription meds and being left isolated and feeling catatonic at home. “The veterans come to us beaten down, tattered and torn, but when they leave they have more functionality. They’ve learned they are not alone. They can beat the stigma that goes with PTSD,” Stanek says. “It’s great when we see our guys going to movies or a baseball game with their families.”
So far, the group has successfully trained nearly 50 veterans, including six who attended a graduation ceremony last month in Albuquerque. For each signed completion certificate, the Staneks and their crew contend that they see at least a few more veterans less likely to take their own lives. For that, they’ll offer a Thanksgiving Day toast.
To learn more about the Stanek’s nonprofit visit them online at PawsandStripes.org. To contribute to the group, mail checks to:
Paws and Stripes
4041 Barbara Loop SE, Ste. D
Rio Rancho, NM 87124
You can help Paws and Stripes raise the money they need to assist veterans on the waiting list. Just in time for the holidays, Santa Fe Dining is sponsoring two fundraising Santa Paws events for the group.
Program supporters and contributors are encouraged to bring their own animals to pose for a picture with Santa Claus (played by Jim Stanek himself). The photos are free, but generous donations to Paws and Stripes are encouraged. Supporters are encouraged to bring their children. The Staneks want them to draw and write a holiday message for soldiers still serving abroad. Paws and Stripes will provide the postage and mailing.
If you go:
Chama River Brewing Company
4939 Pan American Freeway in Albuquerque
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.
La Casa Sena
125 E. Palace Avenue in Santa Fe
10 a.m. to 1 p.m.