Changing the Lives of Veterans One Service Dog At A Time

Chris Kurtonic, 29, refuses to talk about his three tours in Iraq as a corporal in the Marines. He won’t even talk to his wife and stay-at-home caregiver, Melissa, about his time in the Middle East. But he doesn’t have to talk about it if he so chooses – he has earned that right.

Kurtonic has lived with the symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) since he returned from duty in 2003. Life with PTSD and TBI has not been easy for him and his family. He doesn’t talk about his military service because he re-lives it in his dreams and through flashbacks.

The United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) defines PTSD as a mental health problem that can occur after someone goes through a traumatic event like war, assault or disaster. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention outlines TBI as an injury caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain.

“Not all disabilities are visible,” states the Lackawanna County resident. “With PTSD, there are dreams and nightmares that don’t go away. It ruins days, weeks, months – just over one thing.”

For a decade, he suffered.

Then came along Samee Mae, a 2-year-old Labrador retriever from Susquehanna Service Dogs (SSD), who changed his life.

He learned about SSD through another veteran at the VA. “He looked at me and saw that I was kind of down and a little depressed,” Kurtonic recalls. “He asked me if I had PTSD, and I said yeah. Then he said about the service dogs and that they could help me. I got a little excited about it.”

Kurtonic looked into the prospect of getting a service dog from SSD to help him with his PTSD and TBI. He filled out the necessary application paperwork, and it wasn’t long before he heard back from them. He was invited to meet some of the dogs to see if there were any that matched well with him.

“It was a real dark, dark place for me for a couple of years. Not that it’s not anymore, I’m not cured. But most mornings that I wake up now, I feel that life is worth living. I would say that she has done amazing things for all of us.”

“When you go to meet the dogs, the people at SSD know what to look for,” he describes. “They’ll see if the dog bonds with you correctly. When I first met Samee, I scratched her on her back side, and she got all excited – she liked that. I liked her right away, and SSD obviously agreed.”

Kurtonic continues, “For Samee, she had two years of training with her puppy raiser, then she went to advanced training. For me, I went through about three weeks of training in Harrisburg. I had to stay there and go every day for about six to eight hours a day. Then I came home on the weekends. There is a bonding process, which I have to be really strict with. For the first six months, the bonding is really important. You don’t want to let anyone else bother with her – it’s just me and her. Only I feed her, and only I let her go to the bathroom – all of that is for the bonding. I also take her out in public and work with her. Eventually it becomes smoother and smoother. …I have to go back every year for re-evaluation.”

Kurtonic says that Samee has altered his life for the better. “It was a real dark, dark place for me for a couple of years. Not that it’s not anymore, I’m not cured. But most mornings that I wake up now, I feel that life is worth living. I would say that she has done amazing things for all of us.”

His wife, Melissa, agrees. “In a lot of ways, she saved his life because he really didn’t want to do anything before her. He used to spend all day in his room and locked himself in the basement a lot.”

Kurtonic says that Samee helps him deal with his PTSD and TBI by focusing his attention off the world around him. “It’s really good for me because I don’t like crowds and all that kind of stuff, which is normal PTSD stuff. I’ve gotten a little better with it over the years, but she has taken that down like 50 percent. …With PTSD, there are so many ups and downs and lows. You never know what’s going to happen. You can have a bad dream one night, and it ruins you for a week. No matter what happens, even if I get really angry, she never backs away or anything like that. She’s always 100 percent.”

Melissa concurs. “He’s calmer, he’s easier to take to the grocery store or if I have to run errands or anything. He’s just an all-around calmer person. He spends more time with the family. He’s more involved with us, doing things we all like to do together. Before Samee, we didn’t do that.”

One of the most affecting symptoms of PTSD and TBI for Kurtonic is when a severe panic attack occurs.

“It feels like you’re having a heart attack, like you literally feel like maybe you should call an ambulance,” he explains. “It feels like you’re really dying. She wasn’t trained for this, but I taught her how to do it. When a panic attack comes, she’ll do what I call a ‘snuggle.’ She kind of lays overtop of my stomach, with her front half, and puts some pressure on me. It relieves a lot of stress because she just looks in my face and stays right with me, not paying attention to anything else but me. She’ll do that when I have a panic attack, and she just does it, automatically. She even now uses the ‘snuggle’ to let me know like 10 to 20 minutes before the panic attack comes. She never does that unless there’s a panic attack coming. Then, sure enough, 10 to 20 minutes later, it’ll happen. It usually only lasts like five minutes now, but before her, it would last hours.”

One of the most important tasks she has been trained to do is fetch Kurtonic’s phone if there’s an emergency. Samee can also retrieve medications for him as well as find Melissa if he needs help.

One of the most important tasks she has been trained to do is fetch Kurtonic’s phone if there’s an emergency. Samee can also retrieve medications for him as well as find Melissa if he needs help.

Samee even helps Kurtonic find much less crucial objects. “If he loses something and is looking for it, she can help him find it,” says Melissa. “Silly things sometimes, like he lost his hat in the house. He asked, ‘Where’s my hat?’ She found it and brought it back to him.”

When Kurtonic and Samee venture out to the store, a restaurant or any other public area, people do not always know how to react politely. Sometimes people will treat Samee as if she were a pet, rather than the service dog that she is.

“They’re looking for a visible disability, and it’s not there, but that doesn’t mean my service dog is a pet,” he says.

“They’ll come up and start petting the dog without asking. They’ll call it, they’ll whistle at it, they’ll cat call from across the aisle. They’ll also stare at you in an aisle, and they’ll follow you and just keep staring. They also like to let other dogs play with the service dog, but they don’t understand that they can’t do that. It’s a serious thing, because if you spook a service dog, she may never work in public again. If another dog rattles a service dog, and they won’t get out of the car anymore because they’re afraid, it ruins everything. Just ignore a service dog. There’s no reason that you need to pet the dog.”

While Samee is a certified service dog, she is still a dog who loves to play, eat and do all of the other things canines are so naturally inclined to do. In fact, Kurtonic loves that side of her – it’s a big part of what helps him.

“Playing with her is amazing. I get so into it, and we have such a good time,” he smiles. “Nothing compares.”

Samee will also succumb to other typical dog desires when she’s not working.

“The funny thing that Samee does is,” Melissa says, “if the lid is off the garbage can, she will actually watch him leave the room so she can’t get in trouble, and then she will go into the garbage can and start fishing for snacks.”

While Samee is a certified service dog, she is still a dog who loves to play, eat and do all of the other things canines are so naturally inclined to do. In fact, Kurtonic loves that side of her – it’s a big part of what helps him.

Despite Samee’s occasional snack expeditions into the garbage can, she and Kurtonic’s bond is strong. “I spend more time with her than anyone else,” he admits. “If I lost her, I’d be devastated. We’re that close. It’s definitely a unique bond and love.”

Kurtonic gives all the credit to SSD for allowing Samee to enter and change his life.

“What they do, and I’m talking about the handlers that train the dogs for you and the great people who run the organization, their service is at least as equivalent as the service that I’ve done for the country. That’s how I feel. I’m serious about that. It’s like they’re angels. They devote two years of their life taking this dog everywhere, just to give her away for free to me. They pay for all the food and everything. For me, that’s a huge thing, and that’s why I would do anything for them. Samee has done so much for me and my family. It’s an amazing organization. They help so many lives, and they ask nothing in return. They are very accommodating, always there for you, always answering any questions you have. From the handlers to the top people, everybody is outstanding.”

For more information about SSD or to learn how to volunteer for or donate to the organization, call (717) 599-5920 or visit keystonehumanservices.org/ssd.