A Soldier's Best Friend: Service dogs paired with veterans suffering from PTSD

Posted at 6:18 PM, May 29, 2017
and last updated 2017-05-30 10:39:38-04

On this Memorial Day, as we honor the men and women who gave the ultimate sacrifice, it's also the day to remember those whose lives changed forever.  

The veterans who came home, scarred by the war. Those struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, who have found it difficult to make the big adjustment from combat zone to comfort zone, here at home.

Many veterans are currently under-going treatment for PTSD, while many others have opted for non-conventional methods, such as service dogs.

At the nonprofit "Soldier's Best Friend," the mission is to touch two lives at once. The group has been transforming the lives of combat war veterans by pairing them with trained shelter dogs, who are on the E-list at the shelter.

"You're saving two lives at once. You're saving the veteran and you're giving a homeless dog an honorable job," said Elaine Ransdell, president of A Soldier's Best Friend.

ABC15 Arizona caught up with USMC Sgt. Phillip Melendrez as he worked with his rescue, a black lab named Samson.  After countless hours of training, both had graduated from the rigorous course.  

Melendrez said Samson had helped transform his life, after he came home from Iraq.

"I was one of those people who joined after 9/11. I deployed in support of operation Iraqi freedom in 2004-2005," said Melendrez.

He served throughout the Al-Anbar province of Iraq with a special mission to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people. He was part of the group that helped seize the city of Fallujah.

"The things you see on TV, the things you see in Hollywood, honestly are not too far off.  But when you live it, when it's tangible, you can see it, smell it, feel it, it definitely left it's impact on me and it left a significant amount of scars," said the Marine war veteran.

Melendrez was diagnosed with PTSD after he returned home.

"The tough part is finding normalcy again. You always have your head on a swivel, you're looking everywhere around you, especially in an urban environment it's very hard," said Melendrez.

The transition between combat life and home life for this Marine was the 26-hour flight home. From a war zone, he went to holding his new born child. Melendrez called it a "culture shock" that left him uneasy going to crowded places. Even a trip to the ATM was nerve racking as he didn't like having people behind him.

Now, with Samson by his side Melendrez said he can do things he didn't think he'd ever be able to do again. Samson had been abandoned at a local shelter by his owner who could not handle him anymore. He was rescued by the group The Fetch Foundation, who saw a lot of potential in him to be a great service dog.

"I'll sit places I wouldn't normally sit before, go places I wouldn't normally go before, I'll get involved in crowds where I wouldn't before," said Melendrez.

Samson had been trained to create a front and rear cover for Melendrez.  

"He creates a comfortable distance between me and others, places his body between me and others. He also gives me rear cover, and he is a physical brace, I can use him to get up, now we are training for a tough challenge, I'm teaching him how to room search so he can search the home before I enter, make sure there's no one there," said Melendrez.

Samson was also trained to sit patiently under an airplane seat, while traveling.

The bond the two had created was very special. The war veteran referred to his new best friend as "his son".

"Even though we're training, I like to give him some puppy talk you know and say you're not only here for me, I'm here for you. I don't want this to be a one-sided relationship where he's always just taking care of me and servicing me.  I just want to give him a happy and fulfilling life as well. They don't live as long as we do. I want to give him the best life I can," said Melendrez.

The organization had an extensive application process that required a diagnosis of PTSD or combat related traumatic brain injury by a doctor. They interviewed veterans in their homes before matching them up with dogs. In some cases, veterans could train dogs they already had as well. The group also required all veterans and dogs to re-certify every two years, not only to ensure the dog still qualified, but also to prevent the animal from potential abuse.

"For one thing, the dog can't complain to us if there's an issue," said Ransdell.

If you'd like to find out more about the organization or donate visit their website

Since 2011, organizers said 170 veterans had graduated from the program and more than 100 shelter dogs placed in good homes.