NAUGATUCK — A kennel, not a pharmacy, gave U.S. Marine veteran Charlie Johnson his favorite medicine for the post-traumatic stress disorder the Naugatuck man has been struggling against for years.
His four-footed treatment answers to Aliana, an Australian shepherd mix saved from a high-kill Tennessee pound and trained by the Connecticut chapter of Pets For Vets. She was given to Johnson this summer.
"She means everything to me," Johnson, 57, said Monday in a telephone interview from the Naugatuck home where he lived alone until Aliana arrived. "I've been able to drop one of my medications for anxiety by half. She gives me reason for living."
Didi Tulloch, director of the Pets For Vets chapter based out of the ROAR animal rescue shelter in Ridgefield, said Johnson was the first veteran to receive a pet since the chapter opened in May.
"Pet therapy helps with stress, anxiety and depression," said Tulloch, an animal trainer for years. "The act of petting is incredibly therapeutic. Pets offer unconditional love 24/7. They don't talk back or criticize. They comfort."
The dog helps Johnson deal with the PTSD that began about four years after his two-year stint in the U.S. Marine Corps ended in 1977. He had enlisted at age 17 and served in Camp Pendleton in California.
Anxiety, depression, anger, insomnia and isolation soon made life hard. He was unable to hold jobs. He lives on disability income.
"It took me 12 years to learn what was happening to me. I went through a lot of bad things, saw bad stuff happen to friends. But I was stateside, not in combat. I thought PTSD was from combat so I didn't think I could have it," Johnson said.
Finally, a talk Johnson had with a fellow veteran at a Marine Corps League meeting got him to get tested for PTSD and his condition was diagnosed. He learned it can strike veterans who have not been in combat but have experienced traumatic events.
Tulloch said the Ridgefield chapter is the only one in Connecticut of the national Pets For Vets nonprofit. It offers trained dogs and cats to veterans who apply and qualify for the responsibility of having a pet companion.
All the animals Pets For Vets trains and provides are rescue dogs and cats. There is no shortage of them in the nation's shelters. Many, as in the case of Aliana, come from shelters where the abandoned creatures are likely to be killed if not quickly adopted.
That would probably have been Aliana's fate if Pets For Vets hadn't gotten her out and sent to the Ridgefield chapter, Tulloch said.
The nonprofit was founded in 2009 by animal trainer Clarissa Black, who saw companion animals as a way to help veterans deal with combat stress and other emotional issues related to their service. There are now 30 chapters nationwide, with the most in California. New England has three chapters: in Connecticut, New Hampshire and Maine.
Pets for Vets requires copies of an applicant's discharge document, known as DD-214. In addition, the organization requires a doctor's letter saying that, in the doctor's opinion, the veteran would benefit from a companion pet and could take care of it.
The Ridgefield chapter has already placed a second dog, this one with a Meriden veteran, and is preparing a third dog for another eligible veteran. Tulloch said the average $1,200 yearly cost of a companion dog is often a challenge to cash-strapped veterans, so donations are used to help.
Pets For Vets can use volunteers and donations. Tulloch said anyone interested in helping or learning more about the program should call the ROAR shelter, 45 South St., Ridgefield, at 203-438-0158.