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A veteran, a dog and a lifesaving story

Tuesday - 9/24/2013, 12:17pm  ET

Axel.JPG
Capt. Jason Haag credits his dog, Axel, to saving his life after returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. (Courtesy K9s for Warriors)

Dr. Katy Nelson, special to wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Capt. Jason Haag, a medically retired United States Marine Corps veteran, bravely served three tours of duty overseas. But when he returned home to Fredericksburg, Va., from his last deployment in 2011, he found himself unable to leave his basement for almost two years.

Haag -- who was struggling with PTSD, traumatic brain injury and the pain that resulted from the injuries he sustained during his time in Iraq and Afghanistan -- was taking 31 pills each day. He slept with a gun underneath his pillow and he drank at least a dozen beers a night.

His relationship with his family was also suffering. Haag never made it to a single one of his three children's ball games, and he struggled to even walk down the street to get a soft drink from the local convenience store.

He felt as though his family was better off without him. After all, his wife took care of the children and the children took care of their school work. Haag was completely disconnected and his life quickly became the four walls of his basement.

Like many returning soldiers, Haag reached a breaking point -- he contemplated suicide. That's when he decided to do something, for fear of not living to see another year of his children's lives.

He'd seen a neighbor with a service dog, and decided to Google service dogs for veterans. He discovered four organizations and called all of them. The first three told him that he'd be put on a waiting list and he could check back in approximately three years.

But Haag knew he didn't have that long to wait. He called K9s for Warriors, a Florida-based nonprofit organization founded by Shari Duval that provides service dogs, at no cost, to returning heroes who suffer from PTSD and other injuries sustained while serving our country in conflicts post-9/11.

The organization told Haag he could get into a class in six months. Until that day came, K9s for Warriors called Haag to check in each week until he was able to make it down to Florida to meet his new companion and complete the organization's three-week training program.

This three-week program is an integral part of the K9s for Warriors' mission. While it's a time for the soldiers to bond with their carefully-matched dogs, it's also an opportunity for them to network with other servicemen and women who suffer from similar issues.

Ninety-five percent of the dogs utilized by K9s for Warriors are from shelters.

"In other words, we save the dogs, the dogs save the warriors," says Sandi Capra, director of development for K9s for Warriors.

For Wendy Diamond, best-selling author and founder of AnimalFair.com, K9s for Warriors is a cause close to her heart.

"When I learned the staggering fact that every 65 minutes, one of our veterans takes his own life, I knew I had to do something," Diamond says.

Instead of a typical nationwide book tour to promote her book, "How to Train Your Boss to Rollover," Diamond chose a targeted 10-city tour, where all stops are fundraisers for K9s for Warriors.

"My goal is that in every city we go to, we raise enough money for at least one local veteran to get his own service dog," Diamond says.

So far, she's accomplished that goal and then some. With only three cities out of 10 completed, Diamond has raised more than $135,000 -- enough for almost 14 soldiers to receive a service dog.

K9s for Warriors is currently taking applications from D.C.-area veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injury to receive a service dog. If you, or someone you know, would like to apply, you can find more information at the K9s for Warriors website.

Those with doubts on the effectiveness of this program can just ask Capt. Haag.

"There's no doubt that Axel (Haag's dog) saved my life," Haag says. "If I didn't have him If I didn't have him, I wouldn't be standing here today. It's just nice to know I've got a battle buddy with me again. He watches my back, he protects me. He's changed my life and the lives of my entire family."

Capt. Jason Haag is a hero, a dad, a husband, a partner to his dog, and now, the coach of his 8-year-old son's baseball team. He's also a passionate speaker about the lifesaving benefits of "dogs, not drugs."

Dr. Katy Nelson is an emergency veterinarian in Alexandria, Va. Tune in to "The Pet Show" with Dr. Katy every Saturday at 11 a.m. on Washington D.C.'s News Channel 8, and listen on WTOP for her Dr. Pawz segments every two weeks. Have questions for Dr. Katy? You can follow her on Twitter @drkatynelson, on Facebook or email her at askdrkaty@wtop.com.

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