When United Flight 93 crashed in Shanksville, PA, on Sept. 11, 2001, John Gerula was one of the first on the scene as a volunteer firefighter. The experience inspired John, still in high school, to enlist in the Marines. He shipped out to Iraq two years later, and today he bears the invisible wounds of war.
Over the course of 18 months in Fallujah and Operation Phantom Fury, Gerula survived 21 improvised explosive device blasts, resulting in a severe traumatic brain injury that gave him migraines and memory loss, and post-traumatic stress that left him anxious, isolated and abusing alcohol.
“I would spend a lot of time by myself at home on my property, just away from people,” Gerula says. “I didn't like large crowds, just the things that brought me back to what caused my issues, the flashbacks and everything.”
That all changed this summer when Oliver, Gerula’s service dog, came into his life.
”He can sense when I start to breathe heavy, when my heart rate's high, things of that nature, he comes up to me allows me to pet him,” Gerula says. “Since I’ve had Oliver, I’ve not had a drop of alcohol. I gave up drinking altogether. So he has made huge changes in my life.”
Gerula and Oliver are among the first four pairs of veterans and service dogs to graduate from American Humane’s “Shelter to Service” program, created to combat the staggering statistics of 20 veterans committing suicide daily due to PTSD and TBI, and the 670,000 dogs euthanized every year in America’s animal shelters.
“We saw a great opportunity to uplift the healing power of the human-animal bond by taking incredible dogs who were abandoned, who needed a second chance at life, giving them unbelievable, rigorous training, and then matching them with our veterans, allowing these veterans a chance for healing, hope, compassion, and love,” says American Humane’s President and CEO Robin Ganzert.
Ganzert’s organization is currently training its second “Shelter to Service” class while advocating for a bill on Capitol Hill to establish national training standards and speed up the service dog waitlist, which currently runs from 18 to 24 months.
And Gerula has a message to veterans seeking the help with their own struggles.
“Don't give up,” he says. “The best thing to do is to keep going and just go do every option you can.”