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Veteran Brad Livingston finds comfort and relief from PTSD when he spends time with Roxie, a Belgian Malinois.(Anna Erickson / Enterprise)

Service dog Roxie provides therapy for veteran with PTSD

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A Menahga man is bringing awareness to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder with the help of his service dog.

Brad Livingston, a Gulf and Iraq war veteran, has paired up with Roxie, a Belgian Malinois, to control his PTSD and help other veterans.

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He served in the first Gulf War from 1990-91 as a combat medic and Licensed Practical Nurse and served in Iraq from 2005-06 on his last tour.

"I've kind of had PTSD since the first tour but it didn't really pronounce itself fully until I got back this last time," Brad said.

He took PTSD classes to help him deal with episodes as they appeared.

"It's great because they teach us certain things but the hard part that most of us have is the moment something happens," he said.

As an example, early this week helicopters were flying near Brad's home southwest of Menahga to combat a wildfire near Nimrod.

"That kind of thing really sets me off," he said. "Sometimes I don't realize I'm in trouble until after that fact."

That's where Roxie comes in.

"She keeps me grounded and lets me be in that moment and be aware of that moment," Brad said. "She leans into me and is aware of these situations. It has a calming effect."

A ringing phone is another potential trigger, along with startling Brad from behind.

Brad heard about a new opportunity for veterans with PTSD to work with service dogs at a veterans information gathering last summer during Menahga Midsummer Festival.

Brad knew Laurie Brooke, the Becker County Veterans Service Officer, from when he had worked for the Fargo VA hospital.

She helped him get in touch with Linda Wiedewitsch, who trains dogs at Lucky Dog Kennel in Detroit Lakes.

"When I first met her, Roxie came right up to me and there was a connection right away," he said.

After meeting Roxie a couple times it was clear they were meant to be a pair.

"Roxie actually picked me," Brad said.

He began fostering Roxie in and training through the Patriot Assistant Dogs program.

Brad and Roxie trained every Monday, Wednesday and Friday for four months. They continue to train on Wednesdays.

"We go out and about and just try to teach people how to be more accepting," he said. "A lot of people with PTSD kind of get shunned and we get put in a corner. It helps to make other people more sensitive."

Roxie, two years and three months old, is an affectionate dog and fits in well with Brad's family.

His wife, Julia, is a commander of an engineering reserve unit in Fargo and a paraprofessional at Menahga School. Their two children, Harmony, 9, and Riley, 5, play with Roxie when she's not working but know there is a limit to the amount of time they can play with her.

"When she wears her bandana she knows she's in work mode," Brad said of Roxie.

Most places Brad goes with Roxie are fine with service dogs. However, for some people, it's different and they're not sure of how to act, he said.

"A lot of people actually think she's a K-9 or there to sniff drugs," he said. "The hope is that this will be second nature and people will recognize these dogs when they're out with their trainers."

He calls Roxie his "battle buddy."

"Just knowing she's there is a huge relief because I have to count exits, I have to count people and I need to be aware of sounds and sights," he said. "I get very uncomfortable when I'm in a place where I don't know the sights and sounds."

Pairing service dogs with veterans is being discussed at the federal level as well.

U.S. Sen. Al Franken passed legislation called the Service Dogs for Veterans Act to provide service dogs to veterans.

Passed in 2009, the program established a pilot program and study within the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide disabled veterans with service dogs to help keep America's promise to returning soldiers and improve their quality of life after service.

The study will be completed in 2014.

"One of the philosophies is that having a service dog could lessen the amount of prescription drugs a veteran with PTSD or anxiety might be taking," Brad said.

Speaking with others about PTSD and Roxie has been a rewarding experience.

"It's been a blessing," he said. "In Menahga, the whole community has gotten behind it and everyone has been so supportive of Roxie."

He has become more aware of his PTSD and triggers.

In Walmart, Roxie knows exactly where the door is. She is generally clipped to Brad's belt in case he has a panic attack. Then, she could lead him out of a building.

"Sometimes I might not know I'm going into a panic but she can tell," he said.

Brad is retired from the service but keeps very busy with speaking engagements and serving on local boards. He is on the policy council for Head Start in Otter Tail and Wadena County and on the board of directors for Community Action of Otter Tail and Wadena County.

Brad hopes to continue speaking to veterans groups about PTSD. Recently, he talked to a group that included someone who recently lost her husband.

"She approached me afterward and said, 'You mean my husband didn't have to suffer all those years with PTSD.' And I said, 'yes,'" he said. "The more I talk to people, the more I get positive feedback."

Brad thinks of this as an opportunity to help others.

"This isn't just for me. It's to get other vets a dog and make this opportunity available to others," he said. "Being able to be out and about I'm able to be a productive citizen, even though I am disabled as a label. This gives me a chance to get out and talk to people and let them be aware of veterans problems and PTSD.

"The more we can talk to the community, the better the community is. PTSD is not just a household problem. Any veteran will tell you that."

When Brad was first struggling with PTSD he couldn't go to basketball games or recitals for the kids.

"Now that I've gotten Roxie, I'm able to go for a little bit so my kids can see dad at their activities," he said. "Before, I just wouldn't go because I knew I couldn't handle it. Every dad wants to be there for their kids and it's sad that a lot of people in the service don't get the opportunity because they do suffer with PTSD.

Living in rural Menahga has also had a positive impact on Brad and his family. They had lived in Moorhead when Brad worked at the VA hospital in Fargo. His wife, Julie, has family in this area and living away from the city was appealing.

"One of the reasons we moved out here is for the peace and quiet," he said. "We've been here for almost three years now."

Roxie is with Brad whenever he goes out. The hope is to get at least eight years of service from her and then let her be a pet for the rest of her life, he said.

Brad looks forward to continuing to spread awareness of PTSD and veterans issues and grow the service dog program.

"Not only is it helping me to be part of society but once people know the value of it, it changes them as well," he said. "I just know that in a few years this will become the norm. I love being busy and talking about these issues instead of holding it inside and dwelling on it. I hope this will help other people be as blessed as I am."

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Anna Erickson
Anna Erickson is editor of the Park Rapids Enterprise.
(218) 732-3364
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