Service Dog: An Idaho Army Veteran Struggles With Post Traumatic Stress

May 28, 2013

Dan and Angie Sperry
Credit Samantha Wright / Boise State Public Radio

This week we are bringing you the story of Dan Sperry. He's a U.S. Army veteran from Idaho and for the last two decades he's lived with post traumatic stress disorder or P.T.S.D.  We met Dan in 2010 and began to record his story of how he's found a new life by using a service dog

We know as many as 20 percent of military veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan have come back with P.T.S.D. And veterans from the first Gulf War - Desert Storm - also have suffered from this condition. 

Dan is over six feet tall and brawny.  He sits in the backyard of his Meridian home, sipping a lemonade.  He doesn’t sit very long.  Dan is constantly on the move.  He fidgets and he’ll jump up suddenly and disappear into the house.  “I just stay home, I avoid society all together, which now I’ve gotten to a point where I hardly even return phone calls, I don’t go out, I don’t go anywhere by myself.”

Dan, who is 44, wasn’t always like this.  His wife of 25 years, Angie, says he was open and outgoing before he went to the Persian Gulf in 1990.  “I knew when Dan served and went to the Persian Gulf that he would physically come back but I knew something in him would be injured,” says Angie, “I just didn’t know the physical and mental injuries that he would have.”

Dan was serving in Germany when he was sent to the Gulf as part of Desert Shield.  He was in an artillery unit that went to Saudi Arabia into Iraq and Kuwait.  Angie says Dan’s job during the war was, as she puts it, to blow stuff up.  He was in the Gulf until the spring of 1991 when he came home and decided to leave the Army.  He got a job, first in construction, then as an emergency medical technician.  But something was wrong.

“All it takes is hearing a jet, loud noise, a certain, even diesel exhaust, just a certain thing and it just takes me away, they call it flashbacks I guess,” says Dan.

Dan started to have flashbacks of his time in the Gulf.  Night terrors brought the war back in vivid detail.  He had trouble relating with other people.  “Some people just, don’t know when to shut their mouth and they ask some questions that I just can’t handle and questions that are very inappropriate and they shouldn’t ask a combat veteran and when that happens, I have a tendency to have a panic attack.”

Panic attacks are horrible, I completely lose control and it’s not safe for me and it’s not safe for other people. - Dan Sperry

Questions like what’s wrong with you and what happened in the Gulf would lead to what Dan calls "freaking out."

“Panic attacks are horrible, I completely lose control and it’s not safe for me and it’s not safe for other people,” says Dan.

Dan says he can’t see and he doesn’t remember where he is or what he’s doing.  That’s when his combat training takes over. “I got in so many fights when I first got out that and somebody always had to stop me and one day I realized sometime there’s not going to be somebody there to stop me and I’m going to kill somebody and that’s the last thing that I wanted to do.”

Dan turned to the Veterans Administration for help.  He started to get counseling and learned he suffered from post traumatic stress disorder.  The Department of Veterans Affairs reports as many as 10 percent of Desert Storm veterans suffer from P.T.S.D.  Symptoms include flashbacks, nightmares, angry outbursts, depression, and anxiety, symptoms that Dan battles every day. “I don’t want to hurt anybody, that’s the last thing, I mean I was a combat veteran, I would have given my life for anybody in the United States.”

Dan also has horrible headaches, often triggered by the adrenaline that comes with stress or fear.  He loses his balance, he has to walk with a cane.  When a headache hits, he can’t see, can’t focus, can’t even stand up.  He’s constantly in the emergency room.

To wake up…from hearing someone scream for you that you know is helpless and in pain, is horrible. - Angie Sperry

“About a month and a half ago, I fell down, back into our shower and hit my head and got a concussion,” says Dan, “and my wife was in the other room and I couldn’t make enough noise for her to hear me and I laid there for probably close to 45 minutes.” 

Angie adds, “He had to lay there and holler long and loud enough for me to wake up clear in the other room and hear him and get up and help him to wake up…from hearing someone scream for you that you know is helpless and in pain, is horrible and…to see him on the tile floor, Dan is a huge man, he’s incredibly powerful, but to be that helpless is heartbreaking.”

Angie and Dan had reached their breaking point.  Then one day Dan saw a story on TV about a veteran with P.T.S.D. who had a service dog.  Dan got excited.  Could a trained dog help him with his symptoms?

Our series, Service Dog, continues tomorrow during Morning Edition on KBSX 91.5. You’ll meet Awescar, a labradoodle trained to help Dan Sperry cope with P.T.S.D.  

Copyright 2013 Boise State Public Radio