updated 12/11/2013 AT 1:00 PM ET
•originally published 12/12/2013 AT 7:25 AM ET
After two wartime tours of Iraq, Alex Brown couldn t shut off his alert switch.
“My job as a gunner was to literally see everything,” says the former Army specialist. “Not only my life, but my team s life depended on it.”
Yet back home in Louisville, Ky., the constant tension honed in combat left him anxious and jumpy – and afraid to venture beyond secure walls. His relationships crumbled in the wake of his post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I didn t leave my room, much less the house,” says Brown, 28. “It wasn’t affecting just me, it was affecting those who love and care about me, and I just wasn t willing to do that any more. I was just going to be another Army suicide statistic.”
That s when a therapist told Brown about K9s for Warriors, a program begun by Florida grandmother Shari Duval, 68, who feared the same despondency in her formerly outgoing son, Brett Simon, after he returned from nine months in Iraq in 2005.
Duval s idea after researching PTSD: Help her son and others by together matching service dogs – almost all rescue animals – with struggling vets.
“These dogs,” Duval says, “work miracles.”
On his first night there, Brown s new Labradoodle, Skip, jolted him awake.
“I was just drenched in sweat, and I realized I was having a nightmare,” Brown says. “From that moment on, we were inseparable.”
“Dogs are really good about helping [reduce] anxiety,” says psychologist Tracy Stecker of the Dartmouth Psychiatric Research Center. “The animals vigilance makes the vets feel protected, and their unconditional love develops trust.”
For Marine Leroy Johnston, 31, of 29 Palms, Calif., his Australian cattle dog Apache is a companion who helps pull him across the large open spaces that Johnston fears.
“He basically says, ‘Hey Dad, I m going to get you there.’ ”
Retired Air Force airman Amy Lutenbacher, 26, of Necedah, Wisc., says petting her Goldendoodle Macy Mae is comfort that can divert panic.
“She’s given me my life back,” she says.
Brown says the changes he’s experienced are “miraculous.”
“The biggest thing Skip’s done is, he’s taught me to love again,” Brown says. “I was totally dead inside. He was as broken as I was. He had been abused. He didn’t want to leave the house, he didn’t want to train. We had to learn together.”
And Skip helps him look at life differently.
“Every day is a battle for me, he says, “but I don t have to go through it alone anymore.”