MUNSTER — Bridget McDonnell suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. But she finds support and comfort from Nala, her 7-year-old Lab/shepherd mix.
McDonnell, a sergeant in the U.S. Army Reserves, has been active in the military for more than seven years and realized she needed help after her yearlong tour in Afghanistan.
Nala has helped her so much that she is now helping make a difference in the lives of other veterans who share similar difficulties after returning to civilian life. She currently serves on the board of 1Pet1Vet, a nonprofit organization that provides free training and supplies for military veterans and their service and companion dogs.
McDonnell, of Valparaiso, has been in the reserves since 2009 and was deployed from 2012 to 2013 in Afghanistan. She rescued Nala in 2011 and when she returned from Afghanistan that was her best friend.
“I got involved in 1pet1vet because I wanted to be involved in an organization that trains service dogs and helps others,” she said. “Through this group I started to self-evaluate and realized how I behaved and realized just how much support I pull from my dog.”
So McDonnell took her dog to 1Pet1Vet and Nala was trainable and able to be a dog that could be her service dog.
“They did a full evaluation on Nala and right now she is a service dog in training and is allowed complete access anywhere,” McDonnell said. “She is my comfort.”
How does Nala help McDonnell with her PTSD diagnoses?
“Personally she brings me a lot of calm,” McDonnell said. “It’s hard to feel sad when you are petting a dog. It is just a calming effect. She sleeps with me.”
McDonnell does not like crowds and doesn’t like to be crowded around people.
“When I have Nala with me, and she is a big dog, people stay away,” she said. “One time I saw a gentleman who was very nervous and fidgety and he had a lot of anxiety. I pushed Nala towards him and he just lit up. It was a beautiful moment.”
McDonnell said that the service dogs have to have the right temperament and they in turn can help other veterans.
Kristi McNichol is chair of 1pet1veyt and believes in catering to the needs of the veterans.
“When Bridget came to us, we evaluated Nala and we knew she could be trained so she and Bridget are getting trained simultaneously,” McNichol said. “The dog has to be trained to the veteran and its on a case-by-case basis because each person is different.”
McNichol said when veterans come to the organization looking for a dog it matches them up and train the two together and make sure bond and get to know each other.
“We are basically a service dog nonprofit group,” McNichol said. “A veteran tells us what their needs are and we evaluate the dog and the veteran.”
Most of the veterans that come there are post-9/11 and two are of the Vietnam era.
Peggy Moran is the trainer for the dogs and McNichol explained there are three levels of service animals: a canine companion that is a well-trained pet; a canine for emotional support; and complete service animals.
If veterans are interested in getting a dog, there is an application process and a letter from a doctor is needed.
“We are located out of Illinois in Will County, but we get contacted from people all over,” McNichol said.
Visit www.1pet1vet.com/ for more information.