As K9s for warriors prepares for its annual DC gala, marine Jason Haag reveals how the organization is changing wounded veterans’ lives, one dog at a time.
The United States is one of the best at building and training young men and women to fight and win wars all over the globe. That’s what we have been trained to do from the day we arrived at basic training.
But the one thing—the biggest thing—we hardly ever thought about is how to make soldiers whole again after fighting these wars—how to help the men and women who fought so selflessly for our freedom to reintegrate, to turn the switch off, and to be civilians again.
I am a Marine Corps officer, a husband, and a father. I have dedicated nearly 13 years of my life to the Corps. I have completed numerous combat deployments to both Afghanistan and Iraq. I have done this as an enlisted man and as an officer, an infantryman, and a logistician. I have led men into combat, and helped defend this country to the utmost of my abilities. But I am also a wounded veteran, both physically and mentally. Fortunately, there are people out there who have stepped up to the great challenge of helping soldiers such as myself: K9s for Warriors helped me heal from my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI), and saved my life.
On the outside, I was a high-functioning, very successful Marine, decorated with combat awards, and promoted consistently. Life from the outside looked exceptionally good. But inside me and within the walls of my house, it was terrifying. I was falling apart. After two combat tours, I couldn’t sleep; I had constant nightmares; I was drinking heavily; I was abusing prescription pain pills for my injuries. And I was screaming and fighting with my wife and kids. I was a train wreck outside of work.
After my third combat tour, it got even worse. Everything came crashing down around me. I’d reached my breaking point. I shut myself off from everyone: friends, family, fellow Marines. I secluded myself in my basement so I didn’t have to come out into the world where I didn’t feel safe. I tried to get help at one of the Behavior Health clinics. I sat there crying my eyes out, shaking, and asking for help, but the front desk told me they didn’t have any appointments and to come back tomorrow. Is it a wonder we lose 22 veterans a day to suicide—a veteran every 65 minutes?
Once I finally did get “help,” all they did was throw drugs at me. At my lowest point I was on 32 different medications, 12 of which were narcotics. And I continued to abuse them—and to drink heavily as well. I wouldn’t say that I was suicidal. I never thought about putting a gun in my mouth or driving my car into a tree. But I had given up. I didn’t care if I woke up or not. And I do not know how many times I was one pill away from overdosing.
“If I had to pick the best thing that axel has brought back into my life, it would be the smiles on the faces of my wife and children.” —Jason Haag
The system’s therapies, counseling, and drugs were of little good, and I was a shell of my former self. Something had to be done, but none of these “treatments” even came close. My family was in ruins; I hadn’t seen a smile on my children’s faces in over a year and my wife of 14 years was about to walk out.
At that point, something fairly miraculous happened. I found K9s for Warriors—a lifesaving, life-changing organization that provided me with my service dog, Axel.
He saved my life, no doubt about it. He also saved my family.
The K9s for Warriors program rescues 95 percent of its dogs from shelters, and the canines are trained for three to nine months in the Warriors program. Axel was two days from being euthanized himself— so we were both saved.
In 2012, I left my basement, got on a plane to the Warriors facility in Ponte Vedra Beach, Florida, and met Axel. For three weeks I bonded with him—learning all the commands and how to use Axel for my disabilities, in public, at home, and on an airplane. You name it—we did it. At the end of the training, we got on a plane, and I went to my son’s lacrosse game— it was my first time attending in over a year.
I walked into K9s for Warriors in 2012 on 32 medications and hopelessly addicted to narcotics. Within six months, I was down to two medications—both of which I need for my TBI—and completely off all narcotics. I have not touched them since.
Now I travel the country and speak on national television about PTSD and the lifesaving effects of K9s for Warriors and service dogs like Axel. I’ve gone from “I” to “We.”
If I had to pick the best thing that the gift of Axel has brought back into my life, it would be the smiles on the faces of my wife and children—knowing I’m on the path to recovery. We are a family again—Axel included—and we will tell our story a thousand times if it saves just one veteran. Because you never leave anyone behind—not on the battlefield, and not here at home. K9s for Warriors hosts its second annual DC gala in the fall. To learn more, or to find ways to get involved with K9s for Warriors, visit k9sforwarriors.org