New Jersey war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have new hope for recovery thanks to a canine therapy program called Semper Fido started last year by a dog training school.
"She's literally saved my life," said Air Force Sgt. Alan Baulieu, 29, of his dog Bella. Baulieu did two tours in Iraq, mostly handling an explosives-sniffing dog on a bomb squad.
Baulieu, who is assigned to Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst while awaiting a medical discharge, was one of the initial three graduates last month from the Semper Fido program run by K-9 Basics on a handful of acres carved out of the Pinelands in south Jersey.
He said he suffers from several bulging disks in his spine. But more significantly, he suffers from depression, thanks to constant duty looking for homemade bombs, or IEDs.
Bella is trained as a service dog, which allows Baulieu to take her into crowded areas like malls, where he is overly sensitive to being close to strangers.
In Iraq, a stranger approaching you could easily be an enemy wanting to kill you, and soldiers are constantly trained to be on guard against anyone, Baulieu said.
Before he got Bella last summer, he was on anti-depressant drugs and would wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat.
Baulieu said he would get up to check his locks and windows for 'the enemy."
Now, he said, "I'll still get up, look at her -- she's sprawled out and I'll kind of smile and go back to sleep."
A fellow graduate of K-9 Basics first Semper Fido course, retired Marine Sgt. Joshua Hufty, 35, also fears crowds and strangers approaching him.
About two years ago, before he got his dog Kane, Hufty admitted he once came close to suicide by aiming his car at five different telephone poles before he thought about what it would do to his wife and child.
Now, this Semper Fido graduate said he gets both physical and emotional support from his dog, who "allows me to go out there and feel confidant doing things."
The program is still in its infancy, and program organizers Brian Berg, along with his wife Lisa, said they are still trying to get a tax exempt status from the IRS even while using their own money to help subsidize their program.
But he said he has a hard time turning down a war vet in need.
"I think this is going to be huge," Berg said.
Follow Brian Thompson on Twitter @brian4NY