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Ask Adam Werner what it’s like to hit an improvised explosive device (IED) in an armored vehicle, and he’ll tell you it’s like being kicked in the chest by a mule and deafened by the sound of a train wreck.
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Serving with the U.S. Army in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would stand in the back hatch of a Stryker armored vehicle, manning a Squad Automatic Weapon (SAW). On at least five occasions during three years of combat duty, his Stryker rolled over a pressure-plate IED — which sometimes blew the wheels off.
Like a pro football player who takes a serious hit, then stands up and shakes it off, Werner figured it was just part of being a soldier. He would refuse medical attention and “soldier on” rather than leaving his unit a man short.
After a while, he noticed changes. He began forgetting things and developed a strong sensitivity to sunlight. He had debilitating migraines and would lose his peripheral vision. Eventually, he was forced to take medical retirement as a staff sergeant, and he was diagnosed with traumatic brain injuries — TBIs — likely the result of the blasts.
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What followed was a downward spiral of depression, excruciating pain and short-term memory loss that turned his whole world upside down.
He had tried pretty much everything to get his life back on track when he heard about a program for vets called K9s for Warriors that pairs veterans who have TBIs with service dogs. Despite his initial skepticism, Werner decided to give it a shot.
“They sent me a few videos, and I was also able to talk to a few people who had been through the program,” Werner, 41, told AARP Veteran Report. “I thought it might work, and at that point, I was willing to try anything.”
After a yearlong application process, the father of four was paired with a black-and-tan hound dog called Blaze. It wasn’t just the start of a beautiful relationship but of deep healing that has brought about a life-changing shift for Werner.
“What he really does is he slows me down,” Werner explained. “Because I can go all over the place, and most of the time, it’s in circles. But with him, I can relax. It’s strange to talk about, but you’ve got to live it to really understand it.”
Blaze seems to sense when Werner’s anxiety or migraines are coming on and will snuggle and ask to be petted, which relaxes the Army veteran.
Simply stroking an animal can lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increase levels of oxytocin — the same hormone that bonds mothers to babies.