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'I didn't feel there was an escape for me': Service dog, charity group save Wisconsin veteran's life

An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day. Jorel Wester almost became part of that statistic.
Posted at 2:57 PM, Aug 19, 2022
and last updated 2022-08-19 15:57:21-04

OSHKOSH (NBC 26) — Jorel Wester leads a busy life these days.

Commuting from Clintonville, Wester works as a tooling designer at Oshkosh Defense. He's studying to become an engineer and enjoys spending time with his family.

But life hasn't always been bright.

"I didn't feel there was an escape for me," Wester said. "It's a very dark spot. It's a very hard spot to survive."

Wester served in the U.S. Coast Guard for nearly 12 years. He was later discharged after suffering an injury.

Time turned bleak.

"I found myself kind of falling into a depression, into a pretty deep hole," Wester said. "I had lost some friends - some coast guard friends - through self-harm, through suicide means. I kind of saw myself sliding down the same path."

An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day.

Wester almost became part of that statistic.

After making a plan to end his life, Wester said he looked for any sign to walk down a different path. That message came in an unexpected place.

"I stopped for a sandwich at Firehouse Subs. When I was sitting down and eating, they had given me a cup. On the side of the cup was an organization called K9s for Warriors. They provide service dogs to veterans," Wester said. "I broke out crying. I couldn't believe that this had happened. This to me was what I was looking for."

Wester said he called the organization and was eventually put on a waiting list. During that time, he went to the VA and was treated for PTSD.

Two years later, Wester received the help he'd been waiting for through a black lab named Betsy.

"When I start to feel stressed out, when I start to have issues with TBI and processing, she distracts people, allows me some time and makes me feel more comfortable," Wester said.

A mother of an Iraq war veteran founded K9s for Warriors in 2011 when she saw how much her son's dog helped him cope. Since then, the charity has paired 755 veterans struggling with PTSD, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injury with service dogs.

"When they see that dog on day one, something happens," said Carl Cricco, chief marketing and development officer with K9s for Warriors. "You can see the veteran start to look at things a little differently. There's a little bit of hope that starts, and it grows and grows over the time that they're here and when they leave. It's something - I can't even put it into words. There's something innate in that canine-humane connection that allows that to happen."

The service dogs used in the program are rescues from high-kill shelters. Veterans spend several weeks training with their companions.

Cricco said their waiting list has grown dramatically in the last three years, increasing to a five-year wait period. He said the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a role in that.

“COVID was a time of isolation. Isolation is a really bad thing for people with severe PTSD," Cricco said. "So we have veterans who are eager to get their dogs, and get to campus and get the help they need."

K9s for Warriors added a "mega kennel" at their Florida facility to help bring the waiting list down. Cricco said the kennel can house up to 150 dogs.

Wester spent his life rescuing those lost at sea. Now, Betsy and K9s for Warriors are saving him.

"I wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. If it weren't for her," Wester said.

People interested in receiving a service dog from K9s for Warriors can fill out an application online.

Anyone struggling with their mental health can call the National Suicide Crisis Lifeline by dialing 988. Help is available 24/7.