Just home from Afghanistan, Liz Hansen thought the nightmares would go away on their own, that someday she’d want to go out in public and socialize as she had before.
But instead of getting lighter, her burdens began to take a heavier toll. When she learned eight months ago that a soldier in her unit committed suicide, she nearly collapsed under the weight of her own grief.
“That was the mental straw that broke the camel’s back,” she confided. “I had a lot of guilt, and it sent me down a slippery slope.”
She knew the only way out was to get help. While her recovery process is complex — involving multiple therapists and other programs — an integral piece of it has been Jack, a 2-year-old black Lab and Dachshund mix.
“When I’m laying in the closet in the darkness because I can’t deal with the world, he seems to be the only one who knows to come to me,” she said.
Hansen was deployed July 2010 through June 2011 to Afghanistan as part of the Nevada Army National Guard’s Agri-business Development Team. She spent the bulk of her time teaching the women and children in that country to provide for themselves.
She’s still haunted by the mothers who did not have enough food for all of their children. Those women, she said, would ask her to help them decide which children to feed and which to let go hungry.
“I’m a mother of three,” Hansen said. “I would never want to put myself into that position.”
A nurse, Hansen’s secondary duty in Afghanistan was serving on a 63-person medical team treating troops injured in battle.
Although she didn’t expect to be affected by seeing the trauma of war, she struggled with that upon returning home as well.
“Reintegration is really difficult,” she said. “I wasn’t sleeping at night. I had a lot of anxiety.”
Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, Hansen is now training Jack, whom she refers to a “Labroweenie,” to become a service animal through G.I. Dogs, a program that pairs dogs from the Nevada Humane Society with veterans.
Jack is being trained to recognize exits, allowing him to lead Hansen out of any crowded building if she starts to have an anxiety attack. He’s in tune with her emotions, and will apply pressure by climbing on her lap or chest if she’s upset.
“When you’re depressed, you’re usually in the past. If you’re having anxiety, it’s usually about something in the future,” she said. “When Jack applies pressure, it’s just a reminder to come into the present.”
While she says Jack has been instrumental in her recovery, it’s been a process to educate others.
“When your disability is invisible, people don’t always understand why you need a service dog,” she said. “In a lot of ways, you have to put yourself out there. And I’m willing to do that if it helps others.”
Although she transferred out of the National Guard four months ago, she works as a civilian occupational health nurse at the Nevada National Guard Joint Force Headquarters in Carson City.
Even getting permission in the military workplace to bring her dog was a struggle, but she received the necessary permission this week.
“When you’re the first one through the wall, you’re going to get a little bruised,” she said.
Adjutant General Bill Burks said all service dogs and their handlers will be accommodated in accordance with federal law.
“Jack is welcome to accompany Liz throughout her workday schedule,” he said. “Jack is easily comparable to a service dog for a visually impaired person.”
Hansen also volunteers with Team Rubicon, a disaster-relief team made up of military veterans, and is working with the governor’s Green Zone Initiative to connect veterans to the resources available to them.
“Each and every one of us leaves a piece of ourselves on the battlefield,” she said. “I never thought I’d ever find mine again. But I did. I found it through service.”
She wants to help other veterans cope with coming home and let them know they’re not alone.
“For the first two months, you don’t feel like you exist here. You feel like a ghost in a dream,” she said. “They military trains you to go to war, but they don’t train you to come home. A lot of vets don’t know how to ask for help. We’re not trained to ask for help.”
And Hansen knows she’s not alone. She has Jack.
“He is such a joy,” she said.