WEST COLUMBIA, W.Va. — U.S. Army Spc. Ryan Mullins was shot four times in an attack in Iraq in 2004 — twice in the chest, once each in the head and wrist.
Six of the seven members of his squad were wounded. A good friend was killed.
Mullins’ bulletproof vest and helmet saved his life, but the bullet to his forearm required multiple surgeries and nearly two years of physical therapy to regain the strength and function in his hand.
His experiences in Iraq left him with post-traumatic stress disorder. Once the Ripley resident returned home in 2006, he retreated from the world.
Depression and anxiety confined him to his home, and he began to abuse alcohol and drugs – a common occurrence among veterans with PTSD, Mullins said last week during an interview with the Gazette-Mail.
His pattern of drug abuse and depression changed in 2009, when a strawberry-blond Labrador retriever lay down beside him and put her head in his lap.
“She picked me,” Mullins said. “If it wasn’t for Sadie, I would still have issues, not that I still don’t have issues.”
Sadie is a psychiatric rehabilitative assistance dog, trained by a group of inmates at the Federal Prison Camp in Alderson, Greenbrier County, through the Paws4People Foundation.
The Northern Virginia-based nonprofit group, also known as Paws4Prisons and Paws4Vets, works with inmates at five federal and state prisons in
West Virginia and Georgia to train service dogs. The group places the animals with veterans, children and others with physical, neurological, psychological or emotional disabilities.
The free program offers rehabilitative support to the inmates who train the dogs as well as to the people who get them, said Terry Henry, executive director of Paws4People.
The program works to develop self-esteem and confidence, in addition to responsibility and discipline, among the inmates — similar characteristics that the dogs will help instill in their future owners, Henry said.
Paws4People has placed about 20 dogs with veterans and active-duty service members who have physical or emotional disabilities, in addition to nearly 200 dogs with others who have neurological or physical disabilities.
Recent placements include to a 13-year-old Cheat Lake girl who is confined to a wheelchair and a West Virginia University student who was paralyzed in a swimming accident.
On Wednesday, Henry visited Mason County’s Lakin Correctional Center for women to bring a new batch of puppies to the 28 inmates in the training program.
Earlier this year, Lakin became the first state prison to join the Paws4People network, which includes Alderson, the Hazelton federal prison in Preston County and the Jesup federal prison in Georgia.
Built in 2002, Lakin was designed to offer a dog-training program and includes a kennel and an enclosed play area for the animals, said Lori Nohe, Lakin’s warden.
Dog training is an extension of a variety of education, vocational and support services offered at the prison to help inmates learn new skills and address underlying addiction or mental-health issues — and hopefully keep them out of the prison system once they are released, Nohe said.
About 90 percent of the women in Lakin are incarcerated on chargers stemming from drug abuse — from assault and theft to writing bad checks or embezzlement as a means to pay for their addiction, Nohe said.
Lakin houses about 440 women ages 18 to 71, with a median age of 28, Nohe said. Some are in for a short period of time, while others will never leave, she said.
Many of the women come from broken and abusive homes or relationships, and have gotten into drugs such as meth, crack or heroine, she said. Others are women in their 50s or 60s who got a prescription for an injury and developed an addiction to prescription pain pills, she said.
“They’re not bad women. Many have raised families, but are here because of drug issues,” she said
“You have some women who you can tell they made a mistake, and you know when they leave we will not see them again,” said Craig Roberts, associate warden of programs at Lakin. “There are others you know you will be seeing again soon.”
Programs such as Paws4People work to change behavior and give the inmates a purpose and something to work toward, Roberts said.
“For some of these women, this is the first time in their life they’ve done something for somebody else, and in some cases, they’ve saved somebody’s life,” Henry said. “What a sense of accomplishment — they’re saving someone’s life and doing something really important.”
Paws4People replaced another program, 4 Paws for Ability, at Lakin earlier this year. The program follows a standard service-dog training curriculum. Inmates spend about two years learning about the animal’s anatomy, body language, psychology and training techniques.
“It’s a stringent program,” Nohe said, “and they have to want to do it.”
About 70 inmates across the region participate in Paws4Prisons. They work with their assigned dog 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“I never thought I would be doing this,” said a Lakin inmate in the dog-training program. “No way that I thought I could be in prison, neither.” (Nohe asked that Lakin inmates not be identified by name.)
“They’re just like children,” said the inmate, who has been incarcerated for 13 years and has worked as a dog trainer for nearly 10. “I get teary-eyed when thinking about them and how good they are.”
The woman currently is working with Ausha, a 5-year-old black Lab. The pride in the woman’s voice was noticeable as she spoke about the progress her companion has made since entering the program as a rambunctious shelter dog.
By the end of her training, Ausha will know about 130 commands.
The inmate and Ausha will work together for about two years. The woman will identify the dog’s best skill set, to determine the type of service dog she will become.
Based on the dog’s skills and personality, it is paired with a potential owner and the two meet in a “bump” session. The match is made based on the dog’s reaction and if it bonds with the person, said Henry of Paws4People.
“We let the dog pick,” Henry said.
Once a match is made, the new owner works with inmates to “customize” training based on his or her needs, he said.
The training through Paws4People for a service or a psychiatric-support dog is the same. The only difference is public access, he said.
Psychiatric-support dogs have limited access to public places, such as restaurants, hotels and stores, while service dogs are, under law, allowed everywhere, Henry said.
Some restaurant and storeowners will see the dog enter their establishment beside a veteran with no outward physical injury, and their reaction is to kick them out, Henry said.
“These dogs are just as important to these veterans as a prosthetic leg is to an amputee,” he said.
Henry has his own personal experience with PTSD and the support a service animal can provide. A U.S. Air Force veteran, Henry spent nearly 10 years in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East working in counterterrorism and narcotics operations.
He left the military in 1987 and spent nearly five years undergoing treatment for PTSD. He also struggled with an addiction to prescription pain medication.
His daughter, Kyria, showed a natural talent for training their three dogs and, in 1999, at the age of 12, she decided she wanted her pets to help other people. So she founded Paws4People.
Terry Henry helped her coordinate with local nursing homes to bring the dogs in to meet with residents. The program was such a success that they expanded it to bring the dogs into physical and occupational classes at an elementary school near their home in Loudoun County, Va.
As he worked with his daughter and her dogs, Terry Henry said he began to notice a reduction in his PTSD symptoms. Today, his 11-year-old family dog, Addie, stays by his side. His daughter trained the dog.
Henry’s personal experience in the support and healing power of the animals prompted the father-and-daughter team to expand the foundation in 2009 to include the Paws4Vets Wounded Warrior PTSD Intervention and Assistance Dog Training Program.
The program also includes a team of volunteers made up of doctors and psychologists who work with veterans to reduce the number of medications they are on, and also help them efficiently utilize their service dogs, said Kyria Henry, deputy executive director of Paws4People and a WVU graduate.
The majority of the veterans in the program take about 10 to 15 types of medications to treat their PTSD, depression, anxiety and panic attacks, and then to treat some of the side effects associated with those medications, she said.
The goal is to help veterans reduce the number of medications they are on, and instead learn to utilize the dogs, she said.
When Mullins returned home from Iraq, he said, he walked a fine line between keeping to himself and isolating himself from the world.
With his rehabilitative-assistance dog, Sadie, by his side, Mullins said, he’s been able to do the small normal things again — go to Walmart or a video store, or into a classroom to work on his degree.
Mullins can focus on the dog instead of the anxiety and uneasiness public areas evoke, and Sadie warns him if someone approaches him from behind, he said.
A simple tap on the shoulder can cause a “fight or flight” response, he said.
He’s also remained sober since he got Sadie and he’s been able to reduce the depression and anti-anxiety medications he takes, Mullins said.
Sadie forces him to get up in the morning instead of “laying around in bed thinking about everything,” Mullins said. She also allows him to sleep, something he had not been able to do since returning from Iraq, he said.
At night, Sadie acts as an alarm, waking him if he has a nightmare and warning him if someone is near the house, which allows him to let his guard down and sleep knowing she will wake him if something is amiss.
“She’s my early detection system,” he said. “She’s my lifesaver.”
Reach Veronica Nett at veroni…@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.