But their final months in Iraq were so harrowing that the dog, an elite warrior like Bessler, began to suffer from post-traumatic stress and was retired from the military. Mike was later diagnosed with Canine Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition military veterinarians are seeing in some dogs that were sent to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
Bessler adopted Mike, and with a daily dose of Prozac, a quiet life in Wyoming away and a lot of affection, the dog’s severe anxiety was successfully treated. Mike was then trained to work as a service dog for Bessler, as the soldier struggled with his own PTSD and the potentially debilitating symptoms of brain injury in his new life as acivilian. As a trained service dog Mike can anticipate and interrupt Bessler’s anxiety and darkest moods, usually by climbing on top of him or dropping a toy or tennis ball in his lap — as if to order Bessler to play instead of think himself into a well of despair.
An article earlier this month in the Washington Post about Bessler’s relationship with the dog prompted an outpouring of support for him, both emotional and concrete. It was a hero’s welcome home, five years after he returned from the war with Mike in the spring of 2010. Bessler heard from strangers, from friends and — most powerfully for him — from soldiers he knew at various points in his life and veterans he had never met.
They told him he was not alone. They said they were praying for him and Mike. They wrote “salute!” and called him a true American hero. Bessler’s despondency lifted and he felt proud of his service. In return, he thanked as many people as he could, signing his responses with “Matt and Mike.”
Bessler’s landlords, who knew little about their tenant’s 20-year service in the military until they read the article, offered Bessler a year of free rent. With delays in his disability payments from the Department of Veterans Affairs and mounting legal fees from a complicated divorce, Bessler’s financial situation was dire. He was planning to move in with his father, who lives about a mile from Bessler’s house in his hometown of Powell, Wyoming.
Another offer of help came from Republican presidential candidate and former Texas governor Rick Perry, a veteran who retired as a captain from the Air Force in 1977. Perry read the article and called Bessler last week.
Perry has taken an interest in helping individual veterans before, and their challenges are among his top campaign issues. After speaking with Bessler for about half an hour and learning some of the details of his physical and mental struggles, Perry secured Bessler a spot in a private treatment program for PTSD and brain injury.
In a telephone interview, Perry said that he would cover the $28,000 cost of treatment for Bessler, using money he had raised privately to support the facility, Carrick Brain Centers in Irving, Tex.
(The non-profit program does not accept either of Bessler’s insurance plans, Medicare and Tricare, the military’s insurance plan.)
Perry said that he had helped several veterans get into the program and that “this place works.”
“Matt had to fight every inch of the way,” Perry said. “It’s bad enough to have to fight the enemy, but when you come home and you have to fight your own government to get these benefits that you’ve earned, that is so corrosive.”
Bessler has attended several other treatment programs, including a 30-day program for brain injury and a six-month stay last year at the Pathway Home in northern California, where he underwent intensive therapy for post-traumatic stress and cognitive impairment. But none of the programs allowed him to bring his service dog, which was difficult for him, he said.
So this time Bessler— as grateful as he was about another chance to heal— felt he could not be separated from Mike again, even for a few weeks.
But fortunately, he won’t have to be. The answer to the question of whether Bessler can bring the dog to the treatment program in Texas is yes, which surprised Bessler.
The founder and lead clinician of the center, Cagan Randall, said that not only is Mike allowed to join Bessler, but “the dog will be by his side the entire the time.”
Bessler was convinced.
“I think it’s going to be a great opportunity for me and Mike to actually be able to go through the program together,” he said. “And if it’s going to help, it’s what I need to do.”
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