The Power of Puppy Love

Marine Cpl. Clifford Sandy was withdrawn and angry after returning from Iraq, but a new canine program used in assisting Wounded Warriors – in particular a black Lab named Lani – saved him as well as his marriage, says his wife Jamie

It turns out that rescue dogs can do more than track down missing hikers. As one Iraq vet in the Wounded Warriors program can affirm, they’re also able to save lives and marriages

Cpl. Clifford Sandy,

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Cpl. Clifford Sandy, an Iraq veteran, and Lani the black Lab were drawn to each other immediately, and his wife Jamie credits the pooch for saving her husband and their marriage. Nathalie Walker photos

Lani, a 9-and-a-half-month-old black Labrador, is a rescue dog. She hasn’t tracked down missing hikers or pulled anyone from the wreckage of a collapsed building, but Jamie Sandy is sure of one thing: The playful pup saved her husband’s life.

Cpl. Clifford Sandy always had wanted to join the military. The certified country boy who loves the hard work and discipline of farm life joined the Marines for many of the same reasons. At the age of 19, with his 18-year-old wife in tow, he enlisted with the ultimate goal of joining his fellow Marines in Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever the hard work needed to be done. After four years of service he finally got his wish, then everything went to hell.

In an event that he still hasn’t fully discussed with his wife, a suicide bomb attack in the summer of 2008 forever changed their lives. Cpl. Sandy, an aviation ordnanceman, volunteered to help train Iraqi police. He wasn’t physically injured, but there was something different about him when he returned. At first Jamie thought the heavy drinking and sullen behavior were normal for service members returning from a difficult deployment. But after months of steadily worsening behavior, Jamie Sandy went online and found out her distant and angry husband, who had become afraid of social situations, was showing classic symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder.

“He started breaking down in Okinawa,” says Jamie. “I don’t know if it was the workload that was getting to him, but he was drinking more, he wasn’t sleeping, he was having nightmares and he was always on guard, very irritable.”

Cpl. Sandy had been a social drinker in the past, preferring never more than a few drinks with dinner on occasional nights out with friends. But suddenly he was drinking half a fifth of alcohol a night, and Jamie’s concerned suggestions that he cut back were met with, what she now says with a sense of gallows humor, not very supportive responses.

The Marine began treatment in Okinawa, where he was stationed after returning from Iraq, and was later moved to Tripler Army Medical Center’s PTSD Recovery Rehabilitation Program. Cpl. Sandy finally was getting the treatment he needed, but it would be a long road. In an effort to help him find peace, doctors had the Wounded Warrior on 14 different types of medications that often left him in what Jamie calls a zombie-like state. Also as part of the treatment, Cpl. Sandy started keeping a journal. It was the first time Jamie got an insight into how her husband and high school sweetheart was feeling.

“It’s horrible,” she says of reading the journal. “A lot of it was about what happened in Iraq, how he felt guilty, how he felt he should have seen something, how he should have tried to help them. He didn’t know why he was the one who survived and why he can’t get past it.”

The pressure of her husband’s condition eventually wore her down. Jamie started getting depressed, stopped eating and didn’t want to leave the house. She began blaming herself for not being able to help her husband. Through counseling and the coffee talk group she helped start with other Wounded Warrior wives, she learned her feelings of guilt were misplaced. It wasn’t her fault that she couldn’t help her husband.

Taryn Dean, a licensed clinical consultant who works with Marine Corps Base Kaneohe’s Wounded Warrior program, says this type of behavior is common, and that programs have been created to help family members deal with a service member’s challenges.

“We just had a marriage retreat. We brought in our chaplain from battalion and we got a sponsor – Outrigger Hotels sponsored six couples to go to Waikiki to learn about communication and support. Their family is falling apart and their family life is not well, and they get a second chance to understand each other,” says Dean.

Cpl. Sandy’s treatment progressed slowly and was at times quite painful. That is until he picked up an 8-week-old puppy.

“From that first day he picked her up it was like they were meant for each other,” Jamie says. “She has really helped my husband. She saved his life.”

Every Friday at 10 a.m. members of the Wounded Warrior program gather to work with dogs from Hawaii Fi-Do, an organization that breeds and trains assistance dogs that physically, psychologically and therapeutically support people with disabilities other than blindness. Susan Luehrs, the executive director and founder of Hawaii Fi-Do, began working with the Wounded Warriors in 2009 after the organization asked her to train a barracks dog for the Marines. Since then, the program has blossomed.

“We noticed that this dog was alerting to the guys’ PTSD and Fin, (the barracks dog who started it all) got placed with one of the Wounded Warriors,” says Luehrs. “It’s so cool. The smiles, the self-confidence. We had one guy (a Wounded Warrior) who brought his puppy to a fundraiser at Global Village (a boutique in Kailua). This was normally a situation that he would not want to come to – a lot of people, closed spaces. We were there for twoand-a-half-hours, and it was so cool to see how far he had come because he was able to talk about the dog. The dog was the connector and it keeps him calm. We hope the dog will be an alert for his other symptoms beyond PTSD.”

It appears the bond between human and animals may be greater than simple dependency. Jozsef Topal, a professor at Loran Eotvos University in Hungary, has studied human/dog interaction and he believes the long history of domestication has led to the creation of breeds that are particularly skilled at identifying human emotional cues.

He even believes dogs can be useful in the study of autism and schizophrenia.

Hawaii Fi-Do begins training the dogs at 3 days old, and continues until the age of 2, when the dogs are finally certified as official service dogs so this just goes to show how much time and effort goes into PSD Training. Staff and volunteers work with the dogs on a daily basis, but every Friday the Marines take over the training and care of the animals.

It also is the best day of Cpl. Sandy’s week.

Jamie says the effect of the program was immediate. Her husband, who couldn’t find joy in anything, returned home from the training sessions more open, happy and talkative than he had been in years. Of course, much of the conversation centered around Lani, which was just fine with the rugged Marine’s 25-year-old wife.

Not long ago, Lani was given to the Sandys, and the caring canine is working her magic on a daily basis.

“He comes home and he’s happy to see her,” says Jamie through long-suppressed tears. “She knows when he doesn’t feel good. She knows when he has a headache or has a bad day, and she’ll just lay next to him. She is someone he looks forward to, someone who depends on him, someone he can’t let down. She loves him no matter what.”

The Friends of Windward Wounded Warriors is holding a bake sale Saturday, July 14, at Aaron’s Dive Shop in Kailua to raise funds for the program. Donations of cash and cookies are being accepted.

For more information about the event, go to the organization’s Facebook page. If you would like to help Hawaii’s Wounded Warriors by sponsoring events, volunteering or just to say thanks, you can contact the battalion at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.