SELMA, N.C. (WNCN) – Returning to civilian life can be an extremely difficult and sometimes insurmountable task for members of the military.
But a Durham-based organization that helps pair emotionally impaired veterans with companion animals helped save a Selma veteran and his family.
After two tours of duty in Iraq, Robert Hambrick came home with photographs and medals.
But Robert Hambrick also came home with a traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
He gets anxious in crowds. And loud noises can startle the veteran.
“Sometimes I’ll notice I get really irritable if I haven’t been taking my medicine,” he said.
But Robert Hambrick said the worst effects showed themselves while he was asleep
“I’d have just out of this world dreams that were related to Iraq,” Robert Hambrick said. “A lot of the times I wouldn’t remember it but I knew I’d done something.”
Robert’s wife, Erin Hambrick, said he would claw the walls and tell her there are people on the other side he needed to save.
“He’s hit me, strangled me, things like that, but he never remembered it so I know it’s not him,” Erin Hambrick said.
Although she knew her husband would never deliberately hurt her, Erin Hambrick began to fear for her safety and that of the couple’s young son, Conner.
Robert Hambrick’s sleepwalking took over the family’s lives, Erin Hambrick said.
“He would wake up in the middle of the night, pick Conner up out of his crib and walk outside. We had incidents where it was life threatening to all of us and we knew something had to be done,” Erin Hambrick said.
Robert Hambrick received treatment and medication but he also go he also got a dog named Millie.
Millie came to him thanks to Wags 4 Tags.
It pairs veterans with PTSD or traumatic brain injuries with dogs who support them and train to become their service dogs.
Wags 4 Tags founder Ronnie Sadoski said pairing a dog and a veteran is like uniting two souls to be one.
“So far the organization has successfully matched about 30 pairs of veterans with shelter dogs all across the state of North Carolina,” Sadoski said.
The veterans and the dogs have a unique connection, according to Sadoski.
“that’s the whole thing here’s these dogs in kill shelters not wanted or anything,” Sadoksi said. “They didn’t do anything. They don’t deserve to be there. Here we are, coming back again, we don’t deserve to come back with PTSD or TBI.”
Around two years ago, just a short time after contacting Wags 4 Tags, Ronnie Hambrick was matched with Millie, who was living in the Wake County animal Shelter.
“He was sitting here at our house and said, ‘We have a dog.’ He said, ‘It’s a pit bull,’ ” Erin Hambrick said.
She wasn’t initially for having a pit bull around her child but they took a chance on Millie and the whole family fell in love.
“The first night, she slept on top of him in the bed. She literally just slept on him which I think was the first full night’s sleep that all of us had gotten in probably five years,” Erin Hambrick said.
In order to be matched with a dog, veterans must stay on their medication, see a counselor, and attend training with the dog weekly.
“He looks forward to taking her to training and being able to feel like there’s somebody else that depends on him besides us,” Erin Hambrick said.
The Hambricks said Millie also helps Robert feel less anxious around crowds and eases feelings of depression and despair.
The family believes programs like Wags 4 Tags could potentially save lives.
“I was a step away from doing it you know?” Robert Hambrick said.
Erin Hambrick said her husband had two trips to the psych ward before Millie came into their lives.
“I came home one night to him cleaning his gun. We thought that was it,” Erin Hambrick said. “We don’t have those issues anymore.
“We may have rescued her from a shelter, but she’s rescued our family. She rescued us.”