On Dec. 27, 2004, Rob Mitchell (4021) was driving through Sadr City, Iraq, with the US Army’s 1st Cavalry Division, headed toward a nearby base exchange where he and his team planned to buy snacks and CDs. He was behind the wheel of the third Humvee in a three-vehicle convoy when everything suddenly turned brown.
“It was like I’d driven into a sandstorm. I didn’t hear anything, see anything, or feel anything. Everything was just brown,” he recalls. The dust settled, and he realized his convoy had been hit by an improvised explosive device, an IED.
Rob’s best friend, a gunner in the second vehicle, was killed in the attack and several others in the convoy were severely wounded. The Humvee’s ballistic glass windshield saved Rob’s life when it prevented an airborne ball bearing from hitting him. This was the third IED Rob had survived during his year in Iraq.
A life changed by anxiety
Upon returning to the base after the explosion, a debriefing was about to begin when Rob found himself on the floor. “My whole body was shaking, and I couldn’t stop. That was the first time I had experienced what I live with today, which are panic attacks,” he says. Rob hadn’t sustained any physical injuries, but he had walked away with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a condition that has affected every day of his life from that point forward.
Although the frequency of the panic attacks has lessened over time, the father of two still lives with constant anxiety. Keeping that anxiety from building into a panic attack is a daily struggle, especially when any number of everyday experiences, from driving under an overpass to seeing trash on the side of the road, can trigger debilitating fear, shaking, numbness, or dizziness, among other symptoms.
“Nothing seemed to cure it necessarily, but a lot has helped. I’ve come a long way in 10 years of dealing with it. Support has been the biggest help — from friends, family, and battle buddies who have been through the same things I’ve been through. Playing my guitar has been one of them. Nothing is a be-all, end-all, cure-all. There are battles every single day. I win some, and I don’t win others. You just hope you win more than you lose,” Rob says.
In the decade since he returned to the States from Iraq, Rob has tried various therapies, from individual and group counseling to eye movement desensitization and reprocessing. When Machelle Karler, manager of Diversity, Inclusion, Equal Employment Opportunity and Affirmative Action Dept. 3011, suggested a service dog to Rob, he decided to give it a chance.
In 2014 he called Paws and Stripes, an Albuquerque nonprofit that matches shelter dogs with veterans living with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries. The organization teaches the veterans to train the dogs to become service animals in an eight-to-12-month process.
A new tool in the toolbox
“I went to Paws and Stripes because I decided I needed another tool to help deal with the PTSD. You can’t build a house with just a hammer. You have to try everything at your disposal to get through it,” Rob says.
Paws and Stripes provides the dog and the training to the veteran at no cost, but the program has a lengthy waiting list. Rob moved up the waiting list by raising nearly $6,000 to help pay for his dog’s training. The majority of the contributions Rob received came from Sandians. “It makes me feel really good knowing the type of support I have here. The support of Sandia is unsurpassed,” he says.
Paws and Stripes also can teach the veteran to train his or her pet dog if it meets certain criteria. Rob’s dog Hunni, a 4-year-old, 60-pound Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, was evaluated against the criteria, and she was determined to be a good candidate. Rob and his family had rescued Hunni from Animal Humane New Mexico three years ago, and in the last year Hunni has taken on a new role as Rob’s service dog.
“She made the transition pretty smoothly. At first it was a little difficult for her to understand that she was no longer the pet. When we’re training, and when she’s working, no one else can interact with her except me, unless they ask permission first. Hunni needs to get used to not interacting with people everywhere she goes; she basically needs to be a ghost,” Rob says.
Rob and Hunni attend three weekly training sessions, which include group and individual skill-building activities with the dogs, as well as classes that educate the veterans about how a service dog can help allay their symptoms.
Service dogs can help their human companions through PTSD symptoms in many ways, such as retrieving medications at the onset of a panic attack, calling their attention to an elevated stress level, waking them from nightmares, or providing mobility assistance.
“Hunni’s job is to help alert me when my stress and anxiety levels start reaching a point that I need to pay attention to them,” Rob says. Hunni can read Rob’s subtle physical signals, and if she fusses with her nose harness or acts excited, that is her cue to Rob that he needs to mitigate his anxiety.
Petting Hunni helps too. “The tactile response alone can be calming enough to help turn it around if I start freaking out, to get that affection, that unconditional love.”
Through further training, Hunni will be able to help Rob identify and avoid his anxiety triggers, and also to get help if Rob needs it during a panic attack.
Bringing Hunni to Sandia
At the end of January, Hunni will take a test to demonstrate she has the basic skills necessary for operating in a public environment, such as sitting, staying, and obeying commands. After she passes the public access test, Rob can bring Hunni to work.
Rob works as the Environment, Safety, and Health coordinator for centers 400 and 700, having joined Sandia in 2013 as a member of the Wounded Warrior Career Development Program, which makes certain Sandia jobs available to combat-wounded veterans on a one-to-three-year term.
When she comes to Sandia, Hunni will shadow Rob throughout the day, attending meetings, visiting customers around the campus, and working in Rob’s office in Bldg. 802. She will lie in a crate in Rob’s office, and when nature calls, she will avail herself of the lawn outside Bldg. 800.
This is the first time in recent memory that a service dog has been on Sandia’s New Mexico campus, so Rob worked closely with Machelle to ensure all laws and regulations were being followed and to facilitate the process of introducing Hunni to Sandia. Machelle coordinated with Sandia’s legal and medical departments, the Bldg. 802 manager, the building evacuation team, and others to ensure all facets of Hunni’s presence on campus were considered.
“I’ve put my heart and soul into this for him, and I am so excited to see this come to fruition for him and for his family,” Machelle says.
“We wanted to make sure we could pave the way in a process for other veterans or Sandians who are considering having service dogs. We wanted to help lay the groundwork for other people who want to have service dogs, and I think we’ve done that,” Rob adds.