Anderson is a development and events coordinator at Shelter to Soldier and lives in La Jolla.
There are too many veterans in the United States who face mental health challenges. There are also too many dogs in shelters at risk of euthanasia. But the good news is both problems can be reduced simultaneously with programs like one developed in North County.
The mental health crisis in the veteran population has exponentially grown, leaving our soldiers to fight their toughest battles on their own after their time enlisted. The 2022 National Veterans Suicide Prevention Annual Report states an average of 17 veterans commit suicide daily. The American Addiction Centers reports a 95 percent increase in veteran suicide rates for individuals between the ages of 18-34 in the last 20 years, and has also shared that in the last two decades the prevalence of mental health and substance abuse disorders has nearly doubled within this community.
At large, suicide is one of the leading causes of death for people in uniform, with those in the younger demographic being most vulnerable to taking their lives. As the numbers continue to rise, researchers have found that mental well-being is a huge indicator of overall life satisfaction and directly correlates to the quality of life in veterans. Invisible scars and trauma induced from serving play a particularly large role in the mental health of veterans and our active-duty members. With this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Department of Defense have highlighted the urgency of this epidemic, and are committed to reducing and eliminating the rate of suicide in the veteran population. Our soldiers have given up everything for our country and it’s our time to give back to those who have risked it all.
A nonprofit organization in Oceanside, Shelter to Soldier is devoted to helping veterans as they heal invisible wounds most of us will never understand. Overcoming the mental health crisis among veterans requires a collective effort, and the Shelter to Soldier team is here to play a role in aiding the recovery of our servicemen and women. Shelter to Soldier adopts dogs from local shelters and trains them to become psychiatric service dogs for post-9/11 veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
Since 2012, Shelter to Soldier has been dedicated to supporting veterans’ mental health by giving them a new tool to combat the perils of mental illness following traumatic service experiences. Equipped with training and additional resources, our Shelter to Soldier veteran recipients have the opportunity to re-envision a future of less pain with the help of service dogs. Adding trained professional animals to one’s life has shown significant positive change in life satisfaction for our veterans and their families. With each success story Shelter to Soldier builds, it is clear that the relationship between service dogs and veterans has changed the game in our vets’ journeys towards a brighter future.
Secondly, animal shelters across the nation have reached capacity. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals reports that 3.3 million dogs enter shelters each year and approximately 390,000 dogs are euthanized annually. Many shelter animals are well suited to be a part of people’s lives but due to the lack of space in shelters, dogs are being put down due to minor behavioral issues that can be easily fixed with the correct training.
With time, training and funding, Shelter to Soldier is able to save dogs from a life spent in the shelter and provide the dogs a purpose and forever home, at no cost to its veteran recipients. Shelter to Soldier actively partners with local shelters and rescue groups to find dogs who, after thorough medical and behavioral health evaluations, demonstrate a potential as psychiatric service dog candidates for those who have served. Through each alliance we establish, Shelter to Soldier trainers ensure that the dogs are ready to provide distinctive forms of assistance tailored to meet the individual needs of our veterans.
Shelter to Soldier has created a sustainable solution to some of the largest issues in our country. Many researchers have found that service animals play a huge role in the well-being of human lives. The National Institute of Health has concluded that service dogs help individuals who suffer from PTSD and in return have lower levels of suicidal ideation. Moreover, the National Institute of Health reports that service animals are key contributors to improving mental health. Bringing together veterans and dogs is a remedy that gives both parties a second chance at life. Throughout the training process, it is evident that veterans develop a new sense of belonging that only our dogs can provide. Moreover, finding sheltered animals their forever home is a success that fuels the entire team at Shelter to Soldier, whose members are wholeheartedly moved by the connections we have watched develop and the goals to see more change in years to come. This is why “Saving Lives, Two at a Time” is our motto.