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By Tracy Harris
Landmark News Service
Mike Jeffrey has one foot in America and the other in Iraq — and never knows which is bearing more weight.
Jeffrey, a Rineyville resident, spoke to about 85 people at the seventh annual Veterans’ Recognition Event at the John W. Black Community Center Aug. 9.
This year the event focused on post-traumatic stress, a chronic condition that affects anyone who has suffered a traumatic event, including civilians.
Organizer Albert Harrison encouraged veterans to attend, but also members of law enforcement and emergency services, who can also suffer from PTS.
Harrison, a Vietnam veteran, said PTS is often ignored.
“People need to hear more about this and we (veterans) need to talk more about this,” he said.
Jeffrey spoke about his two tours of duty in Iraq and battling both physical and mental issues when he returned.
He also spoke about his unique canine support system — a Doberman pinscher named Seal Team, trained specifically to be a veteran’s service dog.
During Jeffrey’s first tour, in 2003-04, a bomb exploded just feet from his truck. The concussion of the explosion threw him from the truck, causing damage to his spine.
Jeffrey found doctors to keep prescribing pain medications and made it through a second tour, including having a bomb hit his tank.
With just a month left on the tour, Jeffrey said he wasn’t leaving his unit.
“I wasn’t going to leave anyone for nothing,” he said.
But when he returned, his life didn’t get better — it got worse.
“I woke up and had kicked down my apartment doors overnight without knowing it,” he said. “It was hell just living with myself.”
Jeffrey started counseling for his post-traumatic stress but was still dealing with back pain — often by ingesting prescription pain killers and alcohol.
Eventually, he had back surgery, which resulted in additional complications. Today, he wears a back brace and uses a cane.
At Jeffrey’s side is his wife, Shelly, who contacted four service dog organizations before she found one willing to work with her husband.
“He was denied because his injuries weren’t severe enough,” she said.
But Shelly knows otherwise.
“His PTS is severe,” she said. “I’ve been choked out in the middle of the night.”
Now, Seal Team climbs on top of Jeffrey’s chest when he has night terrors to wake him up.
“Seal Team is his security blanket,” Shelly said.
The rescued Doberman was trained by Mike Halley, a Vietnam veteran living in Florida.
Halley started K-9s for Vets in 2008, and funds the program using his disability check. He and his wife, Pam, live in an RV and spend more than $500 a month on dog food alone.
Jeffrey said before he had Seal Team as a companion, he wouldn’t leave the house.
He has mood swings, anxiety and depression, and Seal Team can sense when Jeffrey is becoming upset.
Seal Team also — somehow — understands that Jeffrey becomes anxious when his back is to a doorway. In those instances, Seal Team stands next to Jeffrey and faces the door.
“I still haven’t made it to Walmart yet,” he said, “but we’re taking baby steps.”
Jeffrey said many veterans won’t discuss their PTS, but he believes it can’t be buried.
“We all grew up in the suck-it-up-and-drive Army,” he said. “But you can only suck it up for so long.”
And, despite having to file paperwork multiple times, Jeffrey’s Purple Heart is “in the mail,” he said.
Likewise, Shelly said, military spouses have to learn to listen.
“We’re scared to death to tell our story,” he said. “We’ve done some terrible things we had to do, and we’ve seen some terrible things. We fear that when you find out the terrible details, you’ll stop loving us.”
The event concluded with information about how to support Halley’s K-9s for Vets program and Louisville’s downtown Vet Center. The center is a branch of the Veteran’s Administration but not part of the VA hospital. The center focuses on readjustment and counseling services and is free for veterans and their families.
Harrison said he hopes to organize a veterans’ support group in Oldham County.