WALNUT CREEK, Calif. (KTVU) - An East Bay animal rescue organization is helping save unwanted dogs while helping veterans who struggle with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and other post-war emotional difficulties.
"My first tour sticks with me the most," explained Iraq War veteran Robert Barrickman. "It's what I have the most trouble with."
Barrickman is one of about 300 vets that Tony La Russa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF) has matched with dogs that might have run out of time in animal shelters. Barrickman's dog is named Otto.
"Otto was the one that picked me," Barrickman said petting the dog's head.
"It was instantaneous. I think he just came up and started licking my face." Barrickman said he knew. "I knew from then we would be a good match."
The pair is one of about 300 matches ARF has made in its Pets for Vets program.
"To hear that they can sleep through the night because they have the comfort and loyalty, it's amazing," said ARF Executive Director Elena Bicker. "It improves the quality of life, not only for the veteran, but for the dog as well."
More than half of returning veterans have been diagnosed with PTSD or other mental struggles. The Veteran's Administration estimates at least 22 vets commit suicide each day. At the same time, 3,200 unwanted dogs are euthanized in America each year, according to the SPCA.
"So why not take both problems and put them together?" asked Bicker of ARF. "Save two lives at once."
KTVU followed along as ARF employees strolled through kennels at a shelter in Sacramento County, scouting for potential candidates for the Pets for Vets program.
"I don't use very typical terms sometimes," explained Lindsey as she looked at a sweet Pit Bull mix. "He's squishy. He's like, 'Ahhh, I just love having you right here!'"
Lindsey and her colleague were looking for dogs with a calm, loving demeanor...something to calm a veteran's jittery nerves.
For Barrickman, Otto has made a difference by getting him into a routine of caring for the dog and forcing him to go outside.
"I'm getting Otto registered to be my emotional support dog," Barrickman said with Otto cocooned in his lap. "That's exactly what he does for me; support me."
Looking at Otto so at ease in Barrickman's lap, the feeling seemed mutual.
"He's a joy to have," Barrickman said.