There are still some nights when Debra Wylds’ mind wanders back to her three tours in Afghanistan.
The retired Air Force veteran will have nightmares about the time she landed in Kandahar, only to be bombed 18 times before she could step off the aircraft. She will remember feeling like a “sitting duck,” helpless because the aircraft had already powered down.
Sometimes, Wylds will think about the young airmen badly injured arriving in helicopters.
“It’s like a movie that doesn’t stop,” said Wylds, who retired at Robins Air Force Base in 2014 after serving for 27 years.
She will toss and turn until, suddenly, something jolts her awake. It’s Jet, her 1-year-old black lab mix and a service dog trained to help her cope with her post-traumatic stress disability.
Last month, Wylds and Jet graduated from the Florida-based K9s for Warriors program, which aims to pair recovering veterans with service dogs. Before the three-week program, the Augusta resident said, she felt like she couldn’t muster the courage to leave the house.
That’s changed since she met Jet, named after celebrity chef Jet Tila, who sponsored the dog. The day Wylds met her companion, it felt like “a ton had just lifted off (her) shoulders,” she said.
“You won’t believe the new lease on life that you get with having a service dog,” she said. “We saved each other, actually.”
As of January, K9s for Warriors has graduated 207 veterans. The program, which began in 2011, accepts active-duty or retired veterans from every service nationwide, and works to stem the tide of veterans dying by their own hand once home.
“The unfortunate, staggering fact is, every day 22 veterans returning from combat take their own lives,” said Rory Diamond, the program’s executive director. “The K9s for Warriors training program not only provides our soldiers with a life-saving gift, but it’s also an opportunity for peer-to-peer support with other servicemen and woman who suffer from similar issues.”
During her session, Wylds bonded with five other servicewomen who roomed together and trained each day. The Six Pack, as they were known, would visit parks and grocery stores with their service dogs, and even dropped in a theater one night for a showing of the film 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi. Both the subject matter and the fact that she hadn’t stepped inside a theater in nearly eight years left Wylds tense, but she was able to overcome her fears with Jet’s help.
When she reaches for items on the shelves at the grocery store, she’ll say to Jet, “Cover,” and he will turn to watch her back. If someone gets too close for her comfort, she will say, “Block,” and he will gently walk in front of her.
But when she says, “Make a friend,” the dog will walk up to the stranger and greet him with a lick, a gesture Wylds said softens her a bit more.