Marine corporal Isaiah Schaffer, 25, returned from Iraq in 2005. His PTSD was keeping him from leaving his apartment. Now, with the help of his service dog, Meghan, he lives a relatively normal life. Photo by Noel St. John

A Canine's Care

Isaiah Schaffer had hit rock bottom. During his third combat tour in Iraq, the Marine corporal was severely injured in a Humvee explosion and sent home on a medevac. He was left feeling alone in his hometown of Spotsylvania, Va., afflicted by TBI, a severe leg injury and a case of PTSD so crippling that he was afraid to leave his apartment. And, to add insult to injury, he didn't even receive a welcome-home party when he returned stateside.

But that was five years ago. A lot has changed since then. Schaffer, now 25, is leading a normal life, working full time and preparing to start a family. He has an infant child and is expecting another with his longtime girlfriend. The couple will marry in June.

Many people and things have helped make Schaffer's life completely different from what it was when he returned from Iraq in 2005. But, it's a four-legged friend - his 3-year-old English chocolate Labrador, Meghan - who has assisted him the most.

Meghan is a canine specially trained to give aid and comfort to individuals who suffer from PTSD. She was issued to Schaffer in November of 2008 by Puppies Behind Bars - a program that trains and pairs dogs with incarcerated prisoners to help them rehabilitate. The organization also provides veterans like Schaffer with service dogs.

Meghan always has a watchful eye trained on her master. She'll wake him up from nightmares, comfort him in social situations and even remind him to take his medication. Most importantly, she's given him the confidence to live a normal life.

"It's almost like having a well-behaved 4-year-old in the house," Schaffer said. "She reads me like a book. She is always on me and taking care of me."

Indeed, Schaffer's life prior to 2005 was a stark contrast to anything that society would consider normal. He graduated high school in 2002 and enlisted early in the Marines at the age of 17, with permission from his parents. He deployed to Iraq and was first wounded in Haditha in 2004, requiring a medical evacuation home. After recovering, he was determined to reunite with his brothers-in-arms. He redeployed to Iraq in 2005 and was again medevacced home, after his Humvee rolled over a roadside bomb in June of that year. The explosion gave him a traumatic brain injury and ended his military career.

Schaffer was often exposed to the mental stresses and anguishes of combat. On several different occasions, he saw extensive action in the bloody campaign for the Al Anbar Province - an engagement that claimed the lives of 1,330 U.S. servicemembers. For his bravery and service to his country, he received a Purple Heart Medal and Combat Action Ribbon. He was honorably discharged in 2006.

His homecoming was hardly fitting for a war veteran with a considerable amount of decoration and achievement. Because he was medically evacuated from Iraq separate from his unit, he didn't receive a welcome-home party.

"I was just medevacced home," he said. "The welcome home was kind of just a regular transition back into society. It was kind of like what the guys had when they came back from Vietnam."

He quickly found that PTSD took away his ability to function. He was lonely, depressed and haunted by the horrors of war. He wasn't leaving his apartment, wasn't socializing with other people and was in desperate need of help.

"Really, I hit rock bottom pretty much with PTSD, not leaving my apartment, really not having a life whatsoever," Schaffer said. "I found out about the program and thought I might as well try it."

It was his mother's idea first. She saw Puppies Behind Bars featured on a television news program and suggested to her son that he try obtaining a service dog to help him overcome his hardships. Schaffer agreed and decided to write the organization a letter. A few months later he was in Florida, completing his training with Meghan so he could take her home with him.

Her impact on his life was immediate. She gave him instant relief for his anxiety - she's specially-trained to put her paws on the lap of her master when she senses anxiety or an oncoming panic attack. She made social situations more comfortable for him by creating a barrier between him and other people. And, she was forcing him to finally leave the house because, like all dogs, she requires fresh air and exercise.

"This was my home, this was my shelter," Schaffer said. "But service dogs, they almost require you to get out. They need to get exercise and go to the bathroom. They force you to go outside, and once you're out the door, you're socializing and you're living life again."

Meghan quickly became more of a caretaker than a canine. Schaffer recalls a time when he was shopping at a crowded grocery store with her by his side. Many patrons were staring at him because he had a service dog but clearly wasn't blind. The social pressures became too overwhelming, and he began having a public meltdown.

"Tons of people were staring at me because I had a dog," he said. "I felt threatened, so I wept. I wasn't sad, but it was a feeling where I had to get my emotions out. Meghan pushed me to the corner of the building - a place where I felt comfortable - and she just started licking me and loving on me."

Meghan even helped Schaffer transition into fatherhood. Last fall, the newly-christened dad was home for the first night with his newborn daughter. She began crying violently, sparking a visceral reaction inside Schaffer. The scene reminded him of a battle he was in when a newborn baby was left alone in a street, screaming and crying. No one was able to come to its side because of the intense firefight. As he stood over his daughter, Schaffer's hands became sweaty and his heart started pumping. He shook and froze, but received an instant reality check from Meghan, who offered a comforting gaze.

"Just with a wag of her tail and a look I felt she was telling me, ‘You got this. You're fine.' With that I scooped up my daughter and sang her to sleep," he said.

An individual who was once mired by depression, loneliness and destitution, Schaffer now lives a relatively normally life. He'll marry his girlfriend, Alyssa McComas, June 6, and he recently accepted a position at the Wounded Warrior Regiment Call Center in Dumfries, Va. There, he helps fellow Marines who are injured or ill find health information or assistance in receiving military care.

He even got the welcome-home party that he deserved five years ago. Post 55 in Fredericksburg, Va., threw him a surprise belated homecoming party in March. About 200 friends, family and military supporters attended the celebration, which was part of the Legion's national Heroes to Hometowns initiative, a program that helps severely injured servicemembers transition back into society. A dinner was served at the post, and Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Va.) addressed attendees, praising the Legion and Schaffer's service to his country.

It was a fitting honor for a Marine whose three deployments ended with him coming home on a stretcher.

"The place was overcrowded. It was just packed to a brim," Schaffer said. "They presented me a plaque in recognition of my duty, honor and sacrifice. It was great."

Five years after returning from Iraq, Schaffer's life is radically different. He's started a family, finally received the hero's welcome he deserved and has found a best friend in his canine caretaker. The future looks bright.

"Life is going as well as can be expected," he said. "I still struggle with PTSD daily. But there is almost a light at the end of the tunnel."