It's been years since Faith Harris left the Air Force, years since her deployment to one of the most volatile regions in Iraq and years since she developed her first symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
The Dunstable Street resident is still haunted by nightmares, she's still vulnerable to feelings of panic and she can get anxious, even today, in a crowd.
But Harris has Honor, a service dog that was trained specifically to help her cope with and overcome PTSD. And Honor, a sweet black lab mix, has made all of the difference.
"She's given me my life back," Harris, 29, said, during a recent chat over coffee at Zume's.
Honor was rescued from an animal shelter in Michigan, where she lived for more than a year and a half. She was adopted by an organization called Stiggy's Dogs, which trains shelter dogs to help rehabilitate returning veterans who are suffering from PTSD and traumatic brain injuries.
The motto at Stiggy's Dogs: "Rescuing one life to help rescue another."
This Saturday, at the Knights of Columbus. She's hoping to boost the profile of Stiggy's Dogs, which Harris now works for.
The nonprofit is based in Michigan, but Harris is hoping to open a New England satellite office, because there are so many veterans in the area, she said, and such a need for support services like Stiggy's Dogs.
There are 5 million dogs in shelters around the country. And there's a waiting list at Stiggy's Dogs.
Re-integrating, recovering from PTSD
Statistics show that one in four veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan will suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One in eight return with a traumatic brain injury.
Recognizing the symptoms of PTSD can be hard, and getting connected to treatment can be even harder, Harris said. It's the military culture, she explained it, to be tough and not ask for help.
In 2008, after she'd retired as a military police officer, Harris moved to Charlestown with her son, who is now 6. She enrolled at , but found it hard to leave the house sometimes, even to attend her son's school functions. She was on edge, anxious and had terrible dreams.
"It could be dangerous for someone to wake me from them," she said.
She was chatting with a military friend about her trouble, and he recommended Stiggy's Dogs. (He'd just received his own dog from the organization.) Harris sent in the application form and soon heard back from the founder, Jennifer Petre. They matched her with Honor -- and she was available to Harris, for free.
Honor was trained to recognize when Harris is on the precipice of a panic attack. She can smell a change in her pheromones and respond to a stressful situation, for example, by taking her own leash in her mouth and leading Harris out of a crowded room. If Harris is having a nightmare, Honor will bark until she wakes up.
Honor has changed her life and Stiggy's Dogs, she says, has transformed it.
Stiggy's Dogs, the organization
Stiggy's Dogs was founded by Jennifer Petre after her nephew, Benjamin Phillip Castiglione, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. Castiglione (who was nicknamed "Stiggy") was a medic with the Marines. Petre wanted to honor his memory, his love of animals and help veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
The organization works exclusively with shelter dogs, because they have the maturity to be trained as Psychiatric Service Dogs. The dogs work with their handlers much like guide dogs work with the blind, but their tasks are specific to a person's needs.
The dogs go through a rigorous training course before they are paired with their handlers, and more particular training after they're matched. According to the Stiggy's Dogs web site, 82 percent of patients with PTSD who were assigned a dog had a decrease in symptoms, and 40 percent had a decrease in the medications they had to take.
Interested in supporting the organization?
On Saturday, Harris has organized a at the Knights of Columbus. Admission is a $10 donation at the door. There will be music, raffles and more.
You can also donate to Stiggy's Dogs on the organization's web site. Gifts of dog supplies are always welcome too. To donate locally, you can get in touch with Faith Harris at 617-680-8065 or firstname.lastname@example.org.