When U.S. Marine Eric Salamun returned from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he would rather be in a dark closet than out in the world. Severe post-traumatic stress and a traumatic brain injury gave him debilitating night terrors and depression. He was haunted by horrific memories. “I love to go fishing, but even that brought out horrible intrusive thoughts some days,” he says, remembering pulling a drowned Marine out of a river. He struggled to maintain employment, or even be out in public. His relationships with his family were in crisis.
But that started to change less than a month ago, when he brought Deshka home.
Deshka is a 1.5-year-old service dog provided by Labs for Liberty, an organization that trains service dogs to help combat veterans like Salamun. Deshka is named after a river in Alaska, where he lived with his first veteran match, Andrew. Unfortunately, Deshka developed hip dysplasia and could no longer pull Andrew’s wheelchair through the snow and ice. But this young service dog still had plenty of good left to do, so he was re-matched with Salamun. “I was matched with Deshkha to get me out of this hole I’m in before I lose my family, mostly my wife and daughter,” Salamun says. Deshka will be with him until his permanent service dog, Onyx, is ready this summer.
Labs for Liberty trains each dog to meet the needs of a specific veteran, but many of the skills are transferrable. “Deshka was specifically trained for Andrew, but most PTSD tasks work for any veteran,” Salamun explains. For example, Deskha can create a buffer space between Salamun and other people. He can enter a space and make sure it’s safe. “He keeps me grounded so I don't disassociate,” Salamun says. “PTSD can be dangerous with flashbacks or hallucinations.” When Salamun is having night terrors, Deshka can wake him up before he sweats through the sheets. If Salamun shines a laser pointer on an object and says, “Take,” Deshka will bring that item to his lap. He will even lick tears off Salamun’s face. But Salamun is careful not to ask Deshka to do anything that could hurt his hips, such as turning lights on and off. Deshka is so well-trained, he would do it anyway if Salamun asked – pain and all. “He’s so dedicated when that service vest goes on,” Salamun says.
Deshka’s presence in the family has already made a striking difference. Recently, Salamun went to the park alone with his two-year-old daughter for the first time. He started sleeping in the same room as his wife again. This year, he will spend the holidays with family for the first time in four years. With Deshka’s help, he is slowly starting to get his life back.
Labs for Liberty provides these dedicated companions free of charge to combat veterans. When Salamun traveled to Utah to get Deshkha, his travel expenses were covered. He says the director of operations even cooked the meals! The organization also offers the use of a serene guesthouse in the Utah wilderness, to help veterans recover in a natural setting rather than in an inpatient facility.
For veterans like Salamun, the organization doesn’t just provide trained service dogs—it is literally a lifeline. “Labs for Liberty is dedicated to stopping the 22 veteran suicides that happen every day,” Salamun says. “That's their mission, to empower us to survive and heal with our families together. No one does that, not even the VA.”
He notes that Labs for Liberty now has nine new puppies ready for training. “That's nine more lives they saved,” he says.
Eric Salamun highly recommends watching Sebastian Junger’s TED Talk, “Why Veterans Miss War,” to learn about the struggles facing our returning veterans. “If society could understand why veterans miss war, maybe more of us could get help,” he says.
Deshka will be receiving a Kuranda orthopedic dog bed as a small token of our gratitude. To find out more about why Kuranda beds are the best beds for dogs with hip dysplasia and other orthopedic problems, visit our testimonials page.