She thought she had lost her son to PTSD forever. A dog saved him
This story discusses suicide. If you or someone you know is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. You can also text HOME to 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
Veterans who are in crisis or having thoughts of suicide, and those who know a veteran in crisis, can call the Veterans Crisis Line at 1-800-273-8255 and press 1, chat online at VeteransCrisisLine.net/Chat, or text 838255.
As a high school sophomore, John Tappen watched the towers fall on 9/11 knowing his mother, Susan, had boarded a flight that morning at Boston Logan International Airport.
After a day filled with "sheer panic," Tappen learned his mom was safe, but the day changed his outlook on life.
Fueled by a desire to protect and serve, Tappen enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2006.
As a flight engineer, Tappen thrived in his role, but a deployment to the Middle East in 2009 changed his life again.
'Nothing was working'
Tappen was “a very happy boy before he went into the service,” his mom says.
He came home different.
"The tough thing was that I was unable to identify what the emotions even were, so I would feel anger but it'd be in a way that I've never felt it before," Tappen tells TODAY.com. "I would feel sadness in a way I've never felt before and it was coming from a place I didn't know."
The Navy veteran, 38, calls the experience "bizarre and alarming."
Tappen couldn't even recognize himself. His mom worried.
"He came home and was a totally different person," Susan, 72, tells TODAY.com from her home in Florida. "We tried everything we could think of, from drugs to therapy and friends, and nothing was working. John would just cry."
Tappen was diagnosed with PTSD, and he tells TODAY.com he did “the right things.”
“You start going through the steps of getting healing,” he says, adding he went to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as well as sought out medication and therapy. “But when these (emotions) are still occurring, you start to internalize and go ‘Oh, I’m just broken’ and then that’s when it gets really scary.”
His mom Susan recalls a moment when they were in Walmart together and he burst into tears.
"That was very, very unlike John," she says. "And as a mom, you really don't know what to do. So I kept thinking, 'OK, we have to accept that this is the new John' and we'll do whatever we can to try to give him the best life that we can."
Getting emotional, Tappen tells TODAY.com that at one point, "Suicide was an option for me."
"Not just an option, but a better option than living," Tappen says. "It was one of those things where I thought there was no fixing it. I was doing all the things you’re supposed to do (and) taking up to 20 medications a day. When you’re doing that and you’re not seeing any progress, if anything you’re seeing regression, it’s horrible."
'My scars were not visible'
Around the time that Tappen was at his lowest, he and his mom attended an event for warriors in Jacksonville, Florida. There they met K9s For Warriors, an organization that takes shelter dogs and turns them into service dogs.
At first, Tappen didn't think he would qualify for a service dog. He didn't think he deserved one.
"I had this very real thing in my head where I was not broken enough to deserve a service dog," Tappen says. "I didn't want to take a dog from somebody that I thought might need a dog more than me, because my scars were not visible."
Susan Tappen says she and her husband, Rob, thought the same.
"I think we were maybe part of the problem," she tells TODAY.com. "Because we thought the same thing as John — it's for people who have missing limbs or major physical barriers. This isn't for somebody like John."
Tappen says that at the eventual encouragement of his family, he reached out to K9s and applied for a service dog.
"I really struggled with it," he says. "I knew it would mean really facing my problems."
Saving lives at both ends of the leash
After about a year on the waiting list, Tappen was introduced to a poodle named Henry.
"He is my soul dog," Tappen says of Henry, who he now calls his best friend. "Seeing him was like taking the best medication I've ever taken, because I knew for the first time that things were going to be going in a positive way."
For K9s For Warriors, the mission is about saving lives at both ends of the leash. According the the VA, an average of 16 veterans per day die by suicide.
“Suicide across our veteran community is an epidemic,” Carl Cricco, the president and CEO of K9s For Warriors, tells TODAY.com. “These are ladies and gentlemen who went overseas to put their lives on the line for us and they come home and the support system that’s in place is not doing enough for them.”
The organization has rescued more than 2,000 dogs from shelters and provided them with specialized training to become certified service dogs — an education that costs around $30,000 per dog and is funded through donations.
"The idea that you're 'not broken enough' is so common with our military folks," Cricco says. "Veterans should ask for help (and) veterans need to ask for help."
The organization has paired service dogs with more than 850 veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual assault trauma.
Cricco says: "82% of our warrior graduates have a reduction in suicidal thoughts, and 92% reduce their dependence on medication. These results are real; these dogs have a profound impact on the well-being of these of these veterans."
Tappen tells TODAY.com he now thinks about his life in terms of "BH" and "AH."
"That's Before Henry and After Henry," Tappen says of his best friend, who has been by his side for three years. "I don’t know how to describe it other than you see him, he looks at you, and it's this instantaneous connection."
Through tears, Susan tells TODAY.com that she has Henry to thank for the life of a son she once feared she had lost.
"Henry means everything to me,” she says, crying on the phone. "I have my son back."
This article was originally published on TODAY.com