As Diego Hurtado gently toyed with his dog’s ear, he recalled jumping out of a plane at 2,000 feet, then freefalling when his parachute failed to open.
He tightly held the dog’s ear in his palm as he recalled the mid-air collision of two aircraft at Pope Air Force Base, North Carolina, that spilled fuel and debris on the base, killing 24 fellow paratroopers and injuring countless others.
Hurtado’s dog Rex, a nearly 80-pound yellow Labrador-golden retriever mix, may seem like any other four-legged canine.
But Rex, 3, is also a service dog trained to help Hurtado cope with post-traumatic stress disorder as well as with the service-related physical injuries.
“With Rex I have been able to reduce my anti-depressants by more than half,” said Hurtado, 51, a sergeant first class who served in the Army for 20 years. “I am able to go to a lot of places I was not able to go to at all.”
Like many other veterans who struggle with PTSD and physical injuries, Hurtado turned to man’s best friend for help. Nonprofit organizations across the country provide dogs to veterans to help servicemen and servicewomen cope with their injuries, both physical and emotional.
Kendall resident Jose Moran received his German shepherd, Jana, from the same organization as Hurtado: New York-based America’s VetDogs.
Coral Springs resident and Iraq war veteran Moises Castro turned to Florida-based Dogs 4 Disabled Veterans for his pit-boxer mix, Salsa.
Both organizations train the dogs to match the personality and needs of each veteran and provide the dogs for free.
Castro, 47, served in Kuwait during the Iraq War as a U.S. Navy petty officer second-class. Once he came back, his anxiety, due to PTSD, was high, especially when he would go into crowds. To add to that, in 2010 he had a brain tumor removed, leaving him with sporadic seizures.
For two years, he barely left his home.
Then along came 2-year-old Salsa with white paws.
She has been trained to sense when Castro is about to get a seizure.
“She just knows it before I do,” he said, adding that during a seizure she licks his face to comfort him.
And when the two enter a big crowd that may induce anxiety, she veers him away.
“Then she keeps looking at me to make sure everything is OK,” said Castro. “She has given my freedom back to me.”
During Moran’s service in the U.S. Army as a sergeant first class, his vehicle ran over an explosive device in Sadr City, Iraq, a suburb of Baghdad The impact crushed one of the disks in his spine and his left knee.
“I don’t really remember too much,” said Moran, 45. “I heard a pop and I was out.”
After returning to South Florida, it was not easy to return to civilian life. Sometimes he did not eat for a week because his PTSD caused him so much anxiety in crowds that he avoided going to the grocery store.
“It got pretty bad there for awhile,” he said. “As bad as you can get without crossing the line.”
Three years ago he got Jana, who has been trained to sense Moran’s anxiety levels and knows when the two are about to walk into an uncomfortable situation.
“She can tell if someone is going to annoy me,” said Moran.
On a recent visit to the Miami VA, a man got in the elevator with the two. He “was just loud” and asked a lot of question about Jana, Moran said.