The group Guardians of Rescue are helping veterans deal with PTSD by linking them up with canine companions, NBC's Gabe Gutierrez reports.
VENICE, Fla. – It was the moment Army veteran Michael Metzinger had been waiting for.
As he stood in a Florida park near his apartment, he wondered how the meeting would go. He’d had a lot of time to think after returning from Afghanistan in 2011. After assimilating to war, readjusting to life with his fiancée had not been easy – especially when she went off to work during the day.
That’s when he was alone.
"I've been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “I [also] have lower back pain and lower back issues and then migraines associated with dealing with loud noises and explosions."
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, 502,546 veterans received treatment at VA medical clinics in fiscal year 2012 for primary or secondary diagnosis of PTSD. Of those, 24 percent were veterans from Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom or Operation New Dawn.
But on this sunny May afternoon in the Florida park, Metzinger was about to get a companion to help with his transition.
Her name was Zoey -- and they had both been through quite a journey.
For Zoey, that journey had begun in March at Fort Bragg, N.C., where a rescue operation was underway.
The dogs at the shelter there were strays – or, like Zoey, had to be left behind by deployed soldiers.
But rescuing them was only the first part of the mission. Through a program developed by the New York-based group Guardians of Rescue, they would become therapy dogs --"buddies" -- for soldiers returning from battle with post-traumatic stress.
The group calls the program “Paws of War.”
U.S. Army Corporal John Walis knew why the program was so important. A Guardian volunteer, he was recovering from PTSD himself after serving in Afghanistan. He battled depression, sleeplessness and pain from a disabling spinal-cord injury.
He got his dog, Tommy, last fall.
"Having the dog has completely brought me out of the hell I was living in," Walis said.
That’s why he traveled to Fort Bragg with the all-volunteer Guardians to collect the nine dogs from the Fort Bragg shelter.
"They become a 24-hour therapist,” said Robert Misseri, the Guardians president who started the group three years ago. “And when you hear a soldier say that dog licks my face 25 times a day, I get 100 smiles out of it."
The March “rescue” was the group’s first trip to an animal shelter on a military base. Before that, the group had taken in strays – like Tommy – from elsewhere, including Afghanistan. But Misseri now says he hopes the group can make similar arrangements with shelters on other bases throughout the U.S.
From Fort Bragg, the dogs were taken to the New York-area for some intensive training.
There, the dogs were taught by Guardian volunteers to become companions – therapy dogs – to ease the pain of struggling vets.
And after three months, Zoey is battle ready.
"Whenever we send a dog away to its new home, it's bittersweet," said Dori Scofield, the vice president of Guardians of Rescue.
Bitter because they were giving Zoey up. But sweet because she'd be helping in ways no therapist or family member has been able to.
When he returned to Venice, Fla., Metzinger had faced a difficult time getting used to civilian life.
“He get really nervous in public,” she his fiancée, Andria Amato. “Like when we go out to dinner or something he has to sit with is back against the wall. It kind of calms his nerves a little bit.”
But the couple had high hopes that a new therapy dog could help him adjust.
"Hopefully Zoe will help him realize he doesn't need to keep everything bottled up,” Amato said.
Misseri and Walis were now driving 1,200 miles to deliver Zoey.
"A lot of traveling to get to this moment,” Misseri said. “But it’s worth it."
They pulled up to the park and began to unload their SUV. Metzinger had heard about Zoey for weeks, but this was his first chance to meet his new companion.
“Zoey is going to make me feel better, feel healthier, feel happier,” he said as he waited.
He was smiling.
Now, she was finally here. In his arms.
A dog that was rescued is now rescuing a soldier from the scars of battle.
“It’s awesome to finally meet her,” he said. “I just feel great right now."
As he made the delivery, Misseri smiled, too.
"Today I can say, ‘You know what? Mission accomplished.’"