As I sat and talked to Matthew White, time seemed to slow down. There’s a still confidence about this Veteran and leader – something that makes people feel safe. Yet, under this tattooed armor is a work in progress – wheels always turning, always looking for the next achievement. He’s calm, yet restless. Open, yet guarded. Gregarious, yet introverted. Focused, yet open to different paths. It’s something that only someone who has shared a similar experience can truly recognize in another person.
See, Matthew’s PTSD was a result of his tour and injury in Afghanistan. Mine was a result of an abusive marriage. While on very different scales, the effects can be similar.
Seems like I’m just putting it right out there without any sort of warning, doesn’t it? I am, because it’s important for society to bring mental illness issues to the forefront and stop trying to sweep it under the rug. My hope is that Matthew and Nike’s story will inspire and help at least one person who is having a tough time seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
It’s especially important for us to recognize mental health issues in our Veterans. They risk their lives for this country and when they return home, many suffer in silence. Some fear the stigma, some have well-meaning families that don’t understand, many self-medicate with drugs and alcohol, and sadly many commit suicide.
Upon his return from Afghanistan, Matthew was no different. He was plagued by anxiety, anger outbursts and heavy drinking, all while enduring grueling physical therapy to learn how to walk again. During his frequent physical therapy sessions, Matthew formed a bond with Occupational Therapy Assistant Harvey Naranjo, and Sergeant Major Deuce, a facility K-9 trained to help rehabilitate injured veterans. Regular talk therapy wasn’t really working too well, so Harvey suggested Matthew get a dog.
At first, he was hesitant. Matthew did not have pets growing up and didn’t necessarily want a true therapy dog. His positive experiences with Deuce are the only reason Matthew might even consider adopting a dog. Harvey, as persistent in life as he is during physical therapy, recognized the benefit a dog could provide to Matthew so he took it upon himself to go check out an adoption event.
Enter the little brown pit bull with the heart-stealing smile. Her name is Nike.
Although he doesn’t believe in love at first sight, that’s exactly what happened between Matthew and Nike. As soon as he saw her he knew they would be a great team, and so began their true healing process.
With Nike by his side, Matthew began to thrive. He found his motivation to get back into real life and enjoy activities like walking, running, and basketball again. “People don’t look at me like an amputee anymore. They look at me like a normal person. It took a while but I can move really well now.”
Not only did Nike help Matthew physically, she helped him emotionally just by being there. “With dogs there is no judgment. She sits and listens to me vent. I talk to her more than I talk to most people,” he said. Because of Nike, Matthew is learning to trust again.
The wonderful thing about pets is that any animal can be a “therapy animal,” even without the fancy title. There have been countless studies done that reflect how an animal can positively affect a human being. They lower stress, calm anxiety, build confidence, and are always there to listen. Cat purrs can even help to heal broken bones! While all of this scientific data is fantastic and adds a legitimacy to what us “crazy animal people do,” the proof is in the bonds formed between veteran and pet. An animal can provide a sense of purpose and unspoken kinship that many Veterans lose after returning home. If you’re not sure, try visiting a local shelter. When the time is right, the friend you need will pick you.
So, what advice does Matthew offer to other Veterans who are struggling?
- Talk to other veterans. Knowing someone else has been where you are can help a lot.
- If you’re out of your bad spot, be a mentor to someone.
- Have someone there with you, even if it’s a pet.
“Pit bulls get a bad rap, and so do Veterans,” said Matthew. “Just because some of us deal with PTSD doesn’t mean we’re crazy.”
It’s been 6 years, almost to the day, that Matthew lost his leg. “It has been a year of reflection,” he said. “I never thought I’d be where I am today.”
It’s always important to reflect upon accomplishments and challenges we’ve faced, but goal-oriented Matthew doesn’t dwell in the past and won’t be slowing down. Currently, he’s probably running. He’s a friend and mentor to a 21-year-old Marine who recently lost his leg, he just finished school, he’ll be volunteering at an animal shelter near his home and he always makes time for his core group of friends (all dog owners), who stood by him during his most difficult times.
Nike continues to be a source of support and happiness for Matthew every day. They rescued each other, and there are countless other animals with an unlimited capacity for love just waiting for someone who needs it. As the owner of a senior, one-eyed, solid black cat (3 strikes against him right there), I can’t say enough about considering an “unwanted” or special needs animal. What they lack in limbs, sight, aesthetic, or reputation they make up for with incredible heart and gratitude. They don’t know they’re any different from any other animal so they don’t act like it, and seeing that can be truly inspirational for a veteran who is starting their road to recovery.
Recovery is a difficult, one day at a time process; but when each day starts with a headbonk or slobbery kiss, it makes things a little bit easier. Nike knew that – but it took some time for Matthew. Now they’re inseparable and won’t ever look back.