FILMS > TO BE OF SERVICE
Director: Josh Aronson
Producers: Josh Aronson and Julie Sayres
Executive Producers: Carolyn Powers and
Production Manager: Jim Brennan
Director of Photography: Frank Stanley
A Production of
Aronson Film Associates
TO BE OF SERVICE is a feature-length documentary film about war veterans suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ( PTSD) who are paired with a service dog to help them regain their lives. These vets' experience of returning home is often wrought with depression and a wrenching disconnect from the world they once inhabited. Family, old friends and jobs seem foreign and the newly returned men and women struggle to function and return to a civilian normal. Since Viet Nam the VA has worked to develop treatment programs for vets suffering from PTSD including therapy and medications, but as yet there is no universally effective protocol. The VA has launched a study into the use service dogs for vets with PTSD but their research is scheduled to take years; until it's proven that service dogs are an effective treatment, the VA will not sanction service dogs as a treatment and no funding will be forthcoming for dogs. But through extraordinary personal effort and scholarship programs, thousands of vets have been paired with trained service dogs and the outcomes have been life changing.
TO BE OF SERVICE explores the remarkable life enhancements resulting from the introduction of trained service dogs into the lives of veterans with PTSD. A service dog helps them navigate their days more comfortably and independently, helps them sleep without night terrors and, over time, restores their ability to feel safe, to trust and to love. The unconditional love and support offered by these dogs become the bedrock for veterans to re-engage with the outside world and to learn to feel again.
In "To Be Of Service" we cross the country to meet veterans just before they are paired with their service dog and learn how difficult their quiet lives are. We follow the vets as they are paired with their dog and will follow these new buddies over the months to see how this deeply bonded friendship brings a return to independence and love for the men and women who were so traumatized by the maw of war.
It is not our intention in "To Be of Service" to analyze why human beings have always waged war, nor will we try to proselytize on ways to stop it. Rather, our film provides an unvarnished look at what happens to people who are forced to endure the traumatizing violence of war and how service dogs can aid them in their struggle to come home.
It is our hope that the viewer will glean a deeper understanding of what can happen to soldiers in war and that this wisdom will heighten the call for a resounding "pause" before we leap into the next violent engagement as we ask, "What is the price?"
TO BE OF SERVICE~ Our veterans
Greg, 46, was born in Poland and came to the U.S. at age 14. He enlisted in the army 5 days after 9/11, determined to be an asset to his adopted country. He did three tours in Iraq and, according to his mother, the happy young man who was her son never returned. Greg was so traumatized by the violence he experienced as an infantry soldier that he came home broken, unable to engage or face the world. PTSD defined him.
In spite of treatment at the New York VA and heavy medication, Greg continued to live with unbearable survivor guilt about his comrades who never made it home. After an attempted suicide that left him in a coma for 19 days, his despair deepened. Frustrated that he would never fully recover, when he heard about A service dog program in Connecticut called Educated Canines Assisting with Disabilities (ECAD), he decided to apply.
Greg went to Connecticut to be paired and trained with his dog, a Golden Retriever he named Valor. They bonded quickly and they now live in Rockaway Beach, New York, with Greg's mother. With his trigger of open spaces, residue of Iraq, Greg has to this day never taken a walk on the beach. He hopes Valor will help him get there.
Darryl, a decorated war veteran joined the reserves in 1989 and deployed to Iraq during Desert Storm, and later to Afghanistan. Though he was not in regular combat, he experienced unrelenting stress and the total adrenalin dump of 75 rocket attacks on his first tour which triggered his PTSD. He had a buddy in Iraq who he ate lunch with daily, save for one, a day he'll never forget. They had an argument that day and, in a huff, his friend skipped their lunch, took off and stepped on an IED, maiming him for life. Though he "knows" it wasn't his "fault," Darryl re-lives that day endlessly and is haunted by guilt to this day - more seeds of PTSD.
Between deployments, he became a State Trooper in Georgia, where the carnage he saw as a first responder (especially children killed in car accidents) added to the PTSD which took hold of him with a vice-like grip.
After 20 plus years in the military and the police, his PTSD diagnosis disqualified him for duty, and he was forced to retire. He soon came to feel his life had no purpose. He wasn't happy, he wasn't relating to his family and he had lost his friends. Between the various meds he was prescribed and a series of therapists, Darryl was losing hope. A new idea was presented to him - to get a service dog. Darryl found K9's For Warriors in Jacksonville, Florida, and after over a year on the waiting list, was recently paired with his beautiful black Labrador, Bella. Darryl is hoping that with her help he will be able to manage his PTSD symptoms without his meds and return to being the husband and father he was before he left for war.
Darryl is 46 and lives in a suburb of Atlanta with his wife, Cindy and his two teenage daughters.
Tom was a self described "door kicker" in the army, stationed in Iraq in 2007-2008. He was an airborne soldier, Corporal E4 and the recipient of the Combat Action Badge. Today, suffering from physical pain from injuries sustained in action and the emotional pains of PTSD, he rarely leaves home except for the twice a day walk to take his daughter to school and pick her up. He says accomplishing that daily mission is like drowning.
Taking multiple medications, Tom is a virtual shut in and to avoid his anger and panic attacks he distracts himself playing video games much of every day. He wishes with all his heart that he could be employed but knows that in his present state he is too disabled. Clearly, the total support of his wife and the deeply loving relationship with his daughter are the anchors in Tom's life and, he says, have saved him from multiple suicide attempts. Tom lights up with his daughter, and watching her natural ability to support her father with her love is utterly beautiful and will be a central theme in Tom's story.
Tom will soon be receiving a service dog from K9's For Warriors and hopes that the new relationship will help him manage his rage, reduce his meds and make him more independent.
Tom is 32 and lives in Billings, Montana with his wife and 7 year old daughter.
Sylvia was an Army reservist, called to active duty after 9/11. She served three tours in Iraq as a journalist and public affairs specialist. She left her young son behind in California so she could serve her country, but what she didn't realize before deploying were the conditions she would face in a combat zone as a female in a fraternity of male soldiers.
She was ill prepared for the sexual harassment she experienced, the unrelenting stress from frequent rocket attacks on her duty station, and the devastating injuries and death that she witnessed.
Returning home, the slightest sound made her react as if she was still in Iraq; anxiety and panic attacks were constant, and she developed a stutter for the first time in her life. Her son hardly recognized her. After her first suicide attempt, she was admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where she was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, and put on stupefying amounts of medications that made her feel like a zombie for 5 years. Finally, after being properly diagnosed with PTSD, she began to receive appropriate treatment and slowly emerged from her fog. During these terrible years of the wrong meds and even afterward, Sylvia was prone to suicide attempts and tried to carry it out six times.
Then, her therapist suggested that a service dog could be a next step towards forging a pathway to managing life better.
Sylvia was matched with a black Labrador retriever named Timothy who has helped her live a fuller life pursuing her dream of becoming a professional writer. She's currently in a MFA writing program and has written a novel and short stories about her experiences in Iraq. With Timothy's support, her relationships with her husband and son have improved greatly, and she has learned how to manage her panic attacks, quell her anxiety and feel whole again.
Sylvia lives in Wisconsin with her husband, a military surgeon, and all around good guy.
Glen is well aware that 22 veterans commit suicide everyday, as he was almost one of them. He's a tough guy who was raised on Long Island by a tough guy, but had never gotten into a fight before he was deployed to Iraq. He returned from the war an adrenaline junkie- riding his motorcycle drunk at 100 mph, getting into bar brawls and looking for conflict in order to feel alive. His life was ruled by adrenaline and PTSD.
Glen was a Navy Corpsman stationed with the Marines. He experienced so much trauma that he came home changed and damaged. As he says, "They spend millions to make us warriors but not near enough to teach us to return home."
Despite being heavily medicated to treat his PTSD, Glen lost all his friends and was hyper-vigilant towards a constantly threatening invisible unknown. Ashamed of his explosive behavior, he rarely went out. His anxiety was off the charts, he couldn't be around people and life seemed unmanageable with no way out.
Glen's life began to change when he was paired with his service dog, Indy. He found a new girlfriend, his rage began to diminish and he now rides his motorcycle "like an adult, not a suicide bomber." Instead of bottling up his feelings and hiding his PTSD, Glen now talks about them to raise awareness about veteran suicide prevention and holds benefits to raise money for service dogs.
Glen is 36 years old and lives in Port Jefferson, Long Island.
Phil joined the army to "make a difference and to have a voice." While deployed, he was badly injured in a horrific helicopter accident that ended up costing him a leg. Upon his return he was diagnosed with PTSD and the symptoms led to his divorce. Feeling as though he was losing the battle with PTSD, he attempted suicide and need up in a psych ward.
After being thrown out of the Wounded Warrior program in Florida for smoking pot, a friend suggested he get a service dog. Phil was paired with his dog Reese, who helped relieve his anxiety and made him feel safe and secure both in public and at home . Reese even brought Phil's prosthetic leg to the side of the bed every morning.
When Reese died of cancer at age 8, things took a turn for the worse for Phil. After 8 months, he finally decided to get another service dog, Champagne, aka Champ. Though he still has dark days when he doesn't leave the house, he once again has a battle buddy. When Phil has a nightmare, Champ licks his arms to wake him up and cuddle. Phil says, "I melt into her and just love her and slowly get started with my day. No matter how ugly I feel in the morning, she softens it."
Phil is 41 and lives in upstate New York.
Brandon and his wife, Latisha, are ex Marines, the source of their greatest pride. Brandon sustained a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in Iraq that gives him debilitating migraines and he also has PTSD, a result of the things he had to do and see while serving.
Brandon had been pretty much a shut-in, suffering the migraines, panic attacks and hyper vigilance. When he heard about a nearby dog training facility, paws4vets, he wasn’t particularly hopeful, but decided to give it a try. And then he met BOOTHE, a black Labrador, trained, as all the dogs are from this organization, by an inmate in a West Virginia prison, Brandon is a shy man and doesn’t like speaking in front of people but all the inmates and vets getting their dogs had to speak about themselves, so he realized it was time for a change and stepped up to the mike, revealing his past to Latisha, for the first time. He wanted to be a better man, a better husband and a full participant in his post-military life.
Brandon says that his dog has made him more open, more connected to the world. He feels he’s been given a voice to share his story and help other vets. He was a leader in the Marines and now wants to be a leader in his life. BOOTHE doesn’t judge. He’s just there for Brandon – all the time. Before BOOTHE, Brandon was hyper vigilant, as so many vets with PTSD are, and he would clear every inch of his location looking for threats. Now, he can leave that to BOOTHE and his anxiety levels, as well as the severity of his migraines, have diminished. He can work, go to the gym, go out to a restaurant with his wife, all things that were enormous hurdles for Brandon. As the bond between this Marine and his dog gets deeper, he no longer feels the need to avoid the world. With BOOTHE by his side 24-7, Brandon is engaging more, finding deeper connection with his family and things are looking up.
Tisha joined the Marines at 17 to get out of a crippling family situation and because she wanted to be of service. Boot camp was a breeze for her because she was very athletic and used to a lot of yelling at home. Taking orders was fine with her as she trusted her superiors and wanted to do a stellar job. That’s the kind of person she was then and still is now. Tisha deployed three times to Afghanistan, though working in intelligence she never saw combat. But something happened that changed her forever and she came home a different person.
Tisha was diagnosed with PTSD even before she left the Marines. She suffered from many of the symptoms we’ve come to know like panic attacks, rages, nightmares, flashbacks and constant anxiety. She went through multiple rounds of therapy and medication, but she still suffered. She became a shut-in, imploding, diving deeper and deeper into a black hole of depression and self-recrimination. She heard something about service dogs, mentioned it to her doctors and they weren’t particularly enthusiastic. But she started a six-week program with therapy dogs and, despite an improvement in her situation, her doctors still weren’t supportive. But she persevered and got her service German Shepherd, Cuse. She was able to reduce her medications as she and Cuse got to know each other. Today, Tisha feels safe when she’s with her dog, which is all the time. She calms her down when she begins to panic. She helps Tisha understand there’s not a threat even though she feels there is and she brings her back into reality when she’s having a horrific flashback of what happened to her. She feels her dog saves her every day. Would she go back and be a Marine again, knowing what she knows, and given the same outcome? 100%. She’s more proud of her service than anything in her life, and has learned how to advocate for herself in ways she never expected.