It's their mission: Family brings service dogs to veterans with PTSD

It's their mission: Family brings service dogs to veterans with PTSD

Emily Klose's heart swells when she remembers her husband, James Washburn.

Jim — or "JC" to longtime friends — was a loving husband, devoted father and generous friend.

He was an Air Force Vietnam veteran, a proud iron worker and rental property owner and a skilled carpenter who rehabilitated several houses in his neighborhood, including his family home.

He was a well-known referee and coach for the Champaign Park District's youth soccer program and a trusted confidant to folks who dropped by for advice on building matters or life in general.

And on Sept. 26, 2012, the 66-year-old Champaign man became one of the 22 veterans who, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, take their own lives each day.

Now, a little more than five years after his death, Klose and daughter Claire have established the Jim Washburn Living Legacy Service Dog Fund to raise awareness about post-traumatic stress disorder among veterans and military servicemen and women and to raise funds to provide highly-trained PTSD service dogs free of charge to those in need.

"Whether it's 22 veterans who die each day by suicide or 20 or 10, that's 22 or 20 or 10 too many," said Klose, who last week presented the American Legion Dornblaser Post 203 in Georgetown with $7,500 to buy and train one dog. The money was donated by Klose and her daughter, parents Jerry and Ruth Klose, and siblings Sarah, Lisa and John Klose.

"This will help a veteran suffering from PTSD reclaim his or her life, relationship, marriage, job or career and to move forward," she said.

Mr. Washburn was born in Virginia but spent his childhood moving around the Midwest due to his father's work as a construction foreman. After graduating from a Kentucky high school in 1964, the then-18-year-old enlisted in the Air Force. He was sent to Vietnam two years later.

"He was attached to a combat rescue unit," said Klose, whose husband rarely talked about his service, let alone the war. "They went in in helicopters to retrieve the dead and injured."

After his 11-month, 11-day-long tour, Mr. Washburn returned to the now-closed Chanute Air Force Base in Rantoul as a sergeant. In September 1968, he was honorably discharged and settled in Champaign.

Klose, a University of Illinois graduate who was living in the Chicago area, met Mr. Washburn at a wedding in 1993. He was a newly divorced father of two young boys and 14 years her senior.

"I was a little skeptical, at first," she said with a laugh. "But we really hit it off. He had this larger-than-life personality, and we had so much fun together."

The couple tied the knot on Oct. 12, 1996. Claire came along on May 3, 1998.

"Jim was an older dad ... but he was so excited to be having a girl," Klose said, recalling how he gave up refereeing soccer to coach Claire's team through the park district.

"He was a wonderful dad," said Claire, a sophomore at American University in Washington, D.C. "He always emphasized teamwork and taught me how important it was to have good relationships on and off the field."

• • •

Klose discovered early into her marriage that for her husband, the war didn't end when he left Vietnam. He was always hypervigilant and, at times, suffered nightmares.

"I learned to not do certain things like wake him from his sleep," she said. "If I did, he'd sit up and be quavering."

Klose encouraged him to seek help at the Veterans Affairs Illiana Health Care Center in Danville, which he did in 2003. Like his memories of war, he kept any diagnoses and treatment to himself.

In the months leading up to Mr. Washburn's death, Klose noticed he began retreating to the garage more. Up until then, her husband spent hours there mentoring AA members.

In the last few days, he wasn't eating or sleeping much. Klose's heart broke when she'd find him weeping.

On Sept. 26, 2012, she and her daughter drove to Olympia Fields to visit her parents and brother.

"He was very sweet and loving that morning," Klose recalled softly of her husband. "Around lunchtime, he called to check in and make sure we'd gotten there."

His last words: I love you, and I'll see you at home.

Klose and Claire returned that evening with plans to take their new puppy to an obedience class. When Klose got inside, she called for her husband but got no answer.

Earlier, she thought it was odd that he wasn't waiting for them on the porch as he usually did. She got an eerie feeling when she found his keys on the front porch, then his wallet and cellphone in the kitchen.

Klose found her husband in the basement, where he'd died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

His family laid him to rest at the Danville National Cemetery. Later, his widow willed herself to request his medical records from the VA.

In the stack of papers, she discovered he had been diagnosed with chronic untreated PTSD and depression. He reported feeling lost and detached from others.

He had been prescribed anti-anxiety medicine, but who knows if he was taking it, Klose said. He didn't like to take pills.

Her heart sank when she read a clinical psychologist's report.

"He didn't want to involve his family," she said, recalling the notes. "He just wanted to do it on his own. That's what crushed me. I would've tried to help him, but he wouldn't let me."

In the spring of 2015, Klose, Claire and Mr. Washburn's sons, Caleb and Aaron, planted a scarlet oak tree at the Dodds Park soccer fields in his memory.

Klose joined a local suicide survivors support group and attended a seminar put on by TAPS (Tragedy Assistance program for Survivors), which serves family members of fallen military members and veterans.

When The Wall that Heals — a traveling, half-scale replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. — came to Mahomet in 2015, she learned about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund's In Memory Program. It honors veterans "whose lives were cut short as a result of their service in Vietnam, but are not eligible for inscription on The Wall," including those who became ill from their exposure to Agent Orange and other chemicals and those who suffered from PTSD and related illnesses.

Klose applied to have her husband recognized. And, on June 17, she and Claire attended a ceremony in Washington D.C., where they read his name.

"I've always been very proud of Jim for his service," she said. "He paid a horrific price for what he was asked to do ... and now my daughter doesn't have a father because of what he was asked to do."

Then, in November, Klose rejoined the local support group, which she hadn't attended for a couple of years. She met Julia and David Wilson, whose 29-year-old son — Tyler, a decorated Marine, who served multiple tours in Iraq — suffered from PTSD and took his life in June 2016.

"They were talking about how they helped out with a fundraiser for a PTSD service dog," she said of the Danville couple. "I was all ears."

Through her research, Klose came across a News-Gazette story about Dornblaser Post 203's effort to raise $7,500 for a dog by Veterans Day. Coincidentally, it ran on the fifth anniversary of her husband's death.

"I had been wanting to do something to make a concrete difference in the life of a veteran ... because I don't want to see this statistic anymore," said Klose, who shared her idea that Thanksgiving. "They were all in agreement. We felt that this keeps it local. And we can see exactly who the money is going to help."

• • •

The Georgetown Legion launched its fundraiser with a bucket drop at the Georgetown Town Square the first week of September. Service officer Dave Hughes was inspired by friend Andy Schulte's 22 push-up challenge to raise money for two dogs. One of them, a chocolate Lab named Harley, was later given to Iraq veteran Josh Whitney of Danville.

"The community just embraced it," said Troy Pate, the post's adjutant.

He and Hughes said they raised $2,000 in eight hours at the bucket drop and enough money for two-and-a-half dogs by Veterans Day.

"After tonight, we should be $1,000 into the fifth dog," Hughes added, referring to the night they received the Jim Washburn Memorial funds.

"We want to make this our mission and what our post is known for," Hughes continued. "That's what the American Legion is all about — helping veterans."

The post partners with Paw-a-day Inn K9 Suites and Midwest Professional Canine Services in Tilton. Owner and master trainer Tony Piatt, an Air Force veteran and former K9 police officer, has trained over 500 dogs in different levels of obedience and other specialized training, 17 police dogs and, recently, two PTSD service canines.

Piatt first meets the veteran to find out his or her physical triggers, then trains the dog he has found — in some cases, a rescue animal — to react to them.

"Over time, the dog will be able to react to those triggers before the veteran physically shows them," he said.

"If a veteran is having a nightmare, the dog is trained to interrupt it," Hughes added. "It will nuzzle the veteran, which calms him down. If the veteran gets nervous, the dog will sense that and nudge him or lick his face to interrupt an anxiety attack.

"They're also trained to block," Hughes continued, adding that veterans "need their space. If a person approaches, all the veteran has to do is give a command — maybe, 'block' — and the dog will move between the veteran and the person approaching. The dog will stay there until it's given the command to move back."

Whitney and Harley also stopped by the Georgetown Legion post for the check presentation and to meet Klose and Claire.

The Danville man served in the Army Reserve from 2008 until his medical discharge in 2013.

"I enlisted to be a better husband and father," said Whitney, who had a 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter at the time.

Then Whitney, a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist with the 855th Quartermaster Company out of South Bend, Ind., was deployed to Camp Liberty in Baghdad in 2008 and 2009.

The military installation was under attack each day.

"We had some mortars drop down on the base" 30 days before he was set to come home, said Whitney, who was hit by shrapnel and lost some of his hearing.

The young reservist also lost a good friend that day. He had lost others before.

The transition back to civilian life was difficult.

"I'm driving down the road in Iraq one day and sitting in my living room two weeks later. There's no decompression," said Whitney, who didn't deal with the trauma he'd experienced for several years. He recently was diagnosed with PTSD.

"I was in a very dark place. My marriage was on the verge of divorce. I had no relationship with my kids," said Whitney, who by then had an 11-, 9- and 4-year-old. "My 11-year-old wanted nothing to do with me."

Whitney heard about PTSD service dogs and wondered whether one might help him. But his hopes of getting one fell once he learned how much they cost.

Then a man he knew from church reached out to him about the program.

"He called up and said, 'Hey, man. I got you a dog," he said, adding that the man was Hughes.

• • •

Whitney met Harley, a nearly 4-year-old female rescue Labrador, in February at Piatt's business. He went in with no expectations. Piatt brought her in and took her through some exercises, then put her on "break."

"As soon as he gave the command, she came over and licked my face. That was it. I knew she was mine," said Whitney, who introduced Harley to his family a couple of weeks later and took her home on Feb. 23.

"She's been there ever since," said Whitney, who takes Harley with him to his job at the VA, church, the grocery store — even the swimming pool this past summer. (She didn't get in the pool.)

When he starts to feel anxious or angry, Harley immediately senses that and gives him a nudge or lick, which helps him refocus, Whitney explained. And when he has a nightmare, the dog — who sleeps next to his bed — wakes him up and calms him.

"The whole atmosphere at my house has changed," he said. "Now, I can communicate with my son better. He wants to talk to me."

Whitney said he's been open to sharing his experience in the hope that other veterans are aware of it.

"There's not enough education about what she is and what she does."

Klose and Claire smiled when Whitney put Harley on break, and the dog leaped up on him and licked his face.

"My dad had a really special relationship with all of his dogs," Claire said.

Klose said she jokingly called her husband "the dog whisperer" because he somehow managed to catch loose dogs that ran through his yard and neighborhood and tried to return them to their owner.

Hughes said he wished the program would have been in place in time to possibly have helped Mr. Washburn. But he added that Mr. Washburn's family's donation will be his legacy.

Klose agreed.

"Jim enjoyed helping people," she said. "I think he would have been very proud knowing he helped these young veterans who are returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, who are going through some of the things he went through."

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