It was 6 o’clock in the morning on New Year’s Day in 1975 when I was home from my junior year of college for Christmas break. The wall phone in the den just down the hall from our bedrooms was ringing. I heard Daddy’s footsteps making his way to the phone. Mama followed behind to see who would be calling with bad news at such an early hour. I listened from my doorway trying to figure out what was going on.
I don’t remember exactly how Daddy told us the horrible news; Randy, a sixteen-year old boy from our community, one of our distant Rosser cousins, had killed himself. He was in my younger sister’s class in school and they sometimes rode dirt bikes on the sandy roads between our house and there’s. I thought of him as the sweet, funny, blond-haired boy that I’d see on the school bus or working in tobacco. How could he have done such a thing?
I’d never known anyone to commit suicide. We were all in shock and couldn’t begin to imagine what his family was going through. Over the days, and months, and years that followed we witnessed the tragic impact of that suicide.
Later, when I was choosing a specialty in my nursing career, I went into psychiatry/mental health nursing. Working on an adolescent inpatient unit, we often had teens admitted after they were stabilized in the ICU following a suicide attempt. I developed a passion for working with those who were depressed, trying to prevent suicide. When I left inpatient psychiatry and moved into school nursing, I continued with that passion and taught the mental health unit to the eighth grade students. Eventually I became a trainer in Youth Mental Health First Aid to educate school staff on how to recognize warning signs of depression in their students.
I can’t help but think that Randy’s suicide stayed with me through the years.
When I retired from school nursing in March of 2017. I no longer was a trainer and had no classes of adolescents to teach. Since that time, I have paid attention to the problem that continues with suicide rates and specifically with our veterans. While my father, my uncles, and many of my cousins have served in the military– I didn’t. My sons never showed an interest in becoming soldiers when they were boys and chose to go to college when they graduated from high school. They’ve never known what it is to be drafted, or to have to go into the military for financial reasons. They knew the privilege of parents who would either help pay for college or co-sign for them to receive financial aide.
When I see stories of the men and women who’ve returned from war– forever changed, with symptoms of depression, PTSD, loss of limbs, loss of functioning– I feel badly for them. My heart aches for their mothers and all who love them. I haven’t had to watch that loss in my sons; nor have I worried that the ongoing war inside might lead them to the edge, to take their own life.
In the past months, I’ve seen two features on television about canine assist programs for veterans. As a dog lover, I can imagine the value of a furry companion to help through the hard times. As we approached November 11th and Veterans’ Day, I wanted to find a program that helped those in my area. After calling the Veterans’ Affairs Office, I discovered the Vets to Vets program.
On Friday morning, I looked at their website and called the number to get more information. It didn’t go to voice mail; it went to a real person–Terry.
She was friendly and glad for my interest. I told her my history as a mental health nurse who loved dogs–especially the two Golden Retrievers, Molly and Madison, who were beloved members of our family for many years.
She told me that the Vets to Vet program rescued shelter dogs and had the recipient veteran to train his/her own dog so they would bond from the very beginning.
Eventually she said she’s a veterinarian and also has a graduate degree. She’d worked in research for years.
(This is not verbatim what she said but represents the best I can remember)
“Eventually that wasn’t satisfying for me. I prayed and asked God to give me work that I would love,” she said. “In my search for my path I found the high rate of suicide among veterans and the kill rate of dogs euthanized in North Carolina. At that time, more dogs were put down in our state than anywhere else in the country.”
Her love for animals as a vet merged with her love and concern for military veterans; she could serve both by pairing them together in a mutually beneficial way. Out of her searching, from her talents and gifts, emerged the answer to her prayer; a non-profit organization Vets to Vets United. Here is part of the description from the website:
Vets To Vets United, Inc. (Veterinarians to Veterans United) is a 501(c)3 non-profit organization created to unite veterans and dogs for a common goal: improving and saving lives. By pairing veterans with dogs, we seek to:
- Significantly improve a veteran’s life by providing companionship and/or help with a mental or physical disability.
- Save the life of a dog facing euthanasia by adopting the animal from a local animal shelter.
She described the program– how she trained the veterans with their dogs, a process taking about two years. I asked her how they used donations and she talked about the cost of the extensive training, the money needed to pay the ongoing costs of owning a dog plus the bills that could come up if the dog was sick or injured.
“The veterans don’t have the money to pay to properly care for a dog. They can barely meet their monthly expenses so it would be wrong to place an assist dog with them if those needs weren’t provided.”
Dr. Terry Morris, D.V.M., Ph. D. was quite impressive; it wasn’t just her educational pedigree; it was her heart and her humility.
“I went from working with DNA to working with dogs–even their poop,” she said and chuckled.
She had done everything to develop the program and it wasn’t beneath her to scoop up poop. What she’d come up with appeared to be efficient and economical, using rescued dogs instead of a breed that would be more costly. While I love Goldens, not everyone wants a big dog who sheds so much fur; a grateful rescued canine could provide therapy and service just as well.
Dr. Morris said the cost of training each dog over the two-year period was ten thousand dollars. This is low compared to programs that don’t use rescued dogs and don’t train the veterans to be their dog’s trainer–instead paying a professional. With Vets to Vets the dog and veteran are a solid, bonded team after their two years together–both walking home with confidence.
What a light she is, I thought to myself when I hung up the phone. How unusual it is to call and get the director of a program on a Friday morning who gives so freely of her time. Her program is inspired– a blending of the best and a way of saving both dogs and veterans who may be on the brink of death. If I supported her program, I could continue my passion for helping to prevent suicide, and could help dogs who needed a saving hand.
I looked more closely at the website over the weekend. It has wonderful pictures of the dogs with their new masters. I won’t try to tell you more about the program because the description on the site is best. Take a look and consider supporting their effort, or those of a similar program in your area.
I leave you with this photo and description of Dr. Terry Morris. She was the ‘person in my path’ on Friday who inspired me and was a testament to how God can use our gifts and talents.
Blessings to her and to all who are working to prevent suicide and to saving veterans and our canines.
Dr. Terry Morris, D.V.M., Ph.D., is a native of Durham NC. She is extremely passionate about the welfare of veterans suffering from emotional and/or physical disabilities and the animals that are suffering and euthanized at animal shelters due to over population.
Dr. Morris recognizes the healing power of the animal-human bond. She is thankful to God and is honored to have this opportunity to serve our U.S. Military Veterans and animals, both of which are in need of love, companionship and healing.
Dr. Morris dedicated the Vets To Vets United, Inc. program to her father, who died during his tour of duty as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force, and to her sister who also served as a Captain in the U.S. Air Force.
More on website https://www.vetstovetsunited.org