Nick & Festus (Photo by Ed Stewart)
On June 20th, 2013, ICAN proudly graduated its 100th service dog team. Making that accomplishment even more special was the fact that the team was ICAN's first placement with a combat wounded veteran. Staff Sergeant Nick Bennett, USMC retired, came to us looking for assistance with two challenges that resulted from his combat tours in Iraq. Severely injured when a mortar exploded only a few yards behind him, Nick was left with serious mobility limitations. The loss of muscle in his right leg made keeping his balance difficult, and made bending to pick something up from the floor or tie his 3-year-old son's shoes nearly impossible. We were happy to be able to tell Nick that we could definitely train a dog to help him keep from falling, to pick things up that he might drop, and to help him up from the floor after he tied his son's shoes.
Nick's second challenge was one that we had not trained a dog for yet. Understandably, his experiences in combat left him with serious PTSD. Whenever he heard even the simplest noise, like fireworks, or had to stand in line at the grocery store, Nick's brain and body reacted as though he was back in combat in Iraq. Though he'd had years of therapy, Nick still had flashbacks several times a day, each one causing him to withdraw and become unable to interact with the world around him. Nick's wife Rachel worried about leaving him alone, and they both worried about what might happen if he was alone with their son and unresponsive.
Neither Nick nor Rachel had ever imagined that a dog would change everything. Enter Festus, a 2-year-old Red Fox Labrador Retriever with a big personality and an immediate understanding of Nick's needs. Within minutes of their first meeting, Festus was positioning himself just right to brace Nick as he lowered himself to the floor, and then to support him as he stood back up. When Nick dropped his keys, Festus picked them up, quickly learning to return them to Nick's most functional right hand. Wearing his special harness, Festus confidently bears Nick's weight when they walk together, keeping him balanced and right on track. Even more life changing, Festus recognizes the first signs of a flashback in Nick. Nudging him gently on the leg or arm, Festus brings Nick back to the present, keeping the panic that Nick used to feel at bay. On a special cue – Tail Man – Festus positions himself behind Nick at the grocery store or anywhere else that Nick needs some extra space. When they get home, Festus is first in the door, checking each room to make sure that nothing will startle Nick. Best of all, Rachel and Nick don't have to worry about Nick being alone anymore. With Festus around, he never will be.
ICAN salutes the service and sacrifice of all veterans. It has been our honor and privilege to work with Staff Sergeant Bennett, and we continue to move forward in assisting other veterans by providing them a service dog.
Nick with his son & Festus
Nick & Festus at the War Memorial
To learn Nick & Festus' story, please see our video A Hero for a Hero.
To read Nick's article in The Huntington Post, Click Here.
To read about Nick's visit at Pendleton Correctional Faclity, Click Here.