The organization breeds and trains Labrador Retrievers and Golden Retrievers to become service companions or for other individual and facility needs.
Brad Meister says the phrase “man’s best friend” doesn’t do Charlie, his Golden Retriever, justice. Sure, they go everywhere and do everything together, but their bond goes much deeper.
Brad, a retired Marine Corps Corporal who has a mild traumatic brain injury and battles post-traumatic stress (PTS), says his service dog Charlie has been a lifeline.
“He broke down a brick wall that I had built around my heart,” says Brad. “He’s a gift to me…he really saved me. He’s given me the push I needed to get back up and get back out there again.”
Brad served as a sniper in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2009-2013, and over the course of those four years sustained multiple concussions. It was a traumatic brain injury in 2012 that forced him to medically retire.
Brad spent half a year in Wounded Warrior Battalion East undergoing treatment and rehabilitation for his injuries. After returning home to Charleston, South Carolina, life wasn’t the same.
“I used to be really outgoing. I was an athlete, a leader — that’s the type of person I was,” said Brad. “I say this not to be boastful, it’s just how I was. Then when I came back [from Afghanistan], I hid inside my house and hung out in dark places in my mind.”
Brad’s experiences are very personal and tough for him to recount. He says service dog Charlie, provided to him earlier this year through Warrior Canine Connection, has helped change that.
“He feels like a kindred spirit, and I swear he’s the only dog I’ve ever seen that actually smiles,” said Brad.
“My anxiety in public, at church, at the store… he’s helped me with it so much. I have that mentality…always on the lookout, and he’s really helped me to lower my level of concern. On the beach, I talk to everyone because he’s a magnet for attention. It makes me communicate with people, talk, make eye contact, and it has really opened me up and forced me out of my shell.”
Brad is grateful to Warrior Canine Connection and the Warriors who came before him to train Charlie as a means of addressing their own combat trauma. Warrior Canine Connection’s unique Mission-Based Trauma Recovery model not only creates valuable service dogs, it taps into the healing power of the Warrior Ethos and the human-animal bond.
Warrior Canine Connection Founder and Executive Director Rick Yount says the program is designed to trigger powerful mind/body effects in our Warrior trainers that reduce the symptoms of PTS and traumatic brain injury. The dogs are then paired with other Veterans to provide much-needed support.
“It’s the whole aspect of doing something for a fellow Veteran that makes it as powerful as it is, a different kind of mission,” says Yount. “It requires patience, assertiveness, positive reinforcement, kindness, consistency, communication skills, love, responsibility, and an attitude of never giving up.”
Dogs are not a magic cure-all. Rather, they are a vehicle for Brad and others to continue progressing in their treatment, to help recognize PTS triggers and symptoms, and to help abate them.
“From time to time, those dark moments start to creep back in and Charlie can sense it in my voice, my tone, my overall demeanor,” said Brad. “He picks up on it quickly, shoves his head in my lap, kisses my face, and when that happens, it’s hard for me not to smile. I really wish I had him three years ago. Back then, PTS was something you sort of hid. Now, I feel like I can encourage people to get stronger and help others…to push myself and other people.”
Lauren, Brad’s wife of three years, is his primary support system and number one fan. The two dated for six years before getting married and, although two years apart in age, they attended the same high school and grew up in the same hometown in Georgia.
She admits to initially being uncertain of how a service dog would help, but Lauren was willing to try anything that might benefit Brad.
“I was skeptical at first — I had never really seen a service dog in action,” said Lauren. “But within the first hour or two I completely understood. I have seen Brad become much more sociable and not so anxious. He had gotten to the point where he wouldn’t leave the house for two to three weeks — that’s all changed."
"He goes out in public with Charlie by his side and, of course, everyone wants to pet Charlie and learn more about him. It’s really helped him open up. Brad brushes his teeth and then he brushes Charlie’s teeth. He takes the best care of him. I think those kinds of things are therapeutic for Brad.”
Skeptic no more, Lauren says she now see shades of the “old Brad.” Naturally, she’s also grown quite an affinity for Charlie, herself.
“I feel like he’s my little son,” said Lauren. “I love him because he takes care of Brad and he makes Brad so happy. Charlie’s a shedder, but I would put up with hair everywhere just to see Brad smile. I love Charlie, he’s so sweet and so good. He hasn’t forgotten any of his training.”
Brad says he knows he can’t turn back the hands of time, and that returning to the Marine Corps isn’t an option. He can’t help but miss it just the same.
Dogs are not a magic cure-all. Rather, they are a vehicle for Brad and others to continue progressing in their treatment, to help recognize PTS triggers and symptoms, and to help abate them. (Photo: Warrior Canine Connection)
“From the day I graduated boot camp, I loved every second of it,” said Brad. “There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think about being back in the Marines and serving with my brothers — it’s the camaraderie and brotherhood.”
That said, he’s found a different sort of camaraderie in his four-legged friend. He’s chosen to look forward and takes each day one at a time, but says that with Charlie by his side, he feels more confident and more optimistic about the future.
Speaking of his future, the same week this article was written, Brad accepted a job offer in the private sector providing military intelligence support. He and Charlie are looking forward to their first day in the office.
Warrior Canine Connection is a pioneering organization that utilizes a Mission-Based Trauma Recovery model to empower returning combat Veterans who have sustained physical and psychological wounds while in service to our country. Based on the concept of Warriors helping Warriors, WCC’s therapeutic service dog training program is designed to mitigate symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other challenges, while giving injured combat Veterans a sense of purpose, and help in reintegrating back into their families and communities.Learn More
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