A retired Marine suffering with PTSD finds new calm with his service dog
A new film features a returning combat veteran as he struggles to integrate into his home life, and a black Lab who came running to him.
In 2015, Brandon Lewis wasn’t ready to leave the Marine Corps. The Columbus, Georgia, native, who comes from a military family, felt called to serve his country after witnessing the 9/11 attacks. But after 12 years and three deployments to Iraq, a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder forced the combat veteran to accept a medical retirement.
“I was a little upset about it because I love the Marine Corps,” the 34-year-old told The Renewal Project recently.
For Lewis, as it can be for so many service men and women, adjusting to life after deployment was isolating. His injuries hindered his quality of life and his anxiety brought on by PTSD caused him to disconnect from loved ones. “I was having a lot of migraines, I was dizzy a lot, and I was sheltered. I didn’t go out because I felt people didn’t understand me. I saw Marines die in Iraq,” he said. “There’s nothing else you want to do but end it all. You’re in pain and people don’t understand you.”
After rounds of counseling and medication that just left him feeling like a “zombie,” the Marine was ready to try something new.
Lewis shared his story in the new documentary “To Be of Service,” which was released today on Netflix. Directed by Josh Aronson, the film tells the powerful stories of veterans and their service dogs.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, up to 1 in 5 veterans who have fought in Iraq and Afghanistan experience PTSD in a given year. New research is beginning to uncover how service animals can help alleviate symptoms associated with this disorder, including anxiety, depression, and episodes of extreme distress. Research led by Dr. Maggie O’Haire, an associate professor at Purdue College of Veterinary Medicine, found that veterans with service dogs had clinically lower levels of many of these symptoms as well as an increased ability to participate socially. O’Haire told the filmmakers that veterans who have a service dog have lower medication use for depression, anxiety, and sleep.
“It’s so much easier to cut back on medications because you have something [else] to focus on,” said veteran Sylvia Bowersox, who appears in the film with her dog Timothy.
Through a program called Paws4vets, Lewis was approved to receive a service animal. He traveled to West Virginia to get paired with his new companion, a process he said was not about choosing a dog, but letting the dog choose you. And that’s exactly what a two-year-old black Lab named Boothe did.
“I called all the dogs by name and not one came to me,” he said. “But Boothe ran to me very quickly.”
The two have been inseparable ever since. Lewis reports he’s cut down drastically on his medications, and where he was counting four or five migraines a week, he’s down to one or two a month. “The biggest thing now is he’s my calm. Whenever I’m feeling a little anxious I can rub him and he helps me be calm,” he said.
In 2018, when Lewis started a new job at Allstate, where he is now a liability claim adjuster, Boothe reported for work right alongside him. He was the first service dog to join the Lubbock, Texas office—he even has his own badge. And when a coworker is having a particularly stressful day, Lewis knows just what to do.
“I let them go ahead and pet Boothe to make them feel better. It’s amazing how it changes people’s demeanor. You can see it on their face.”
Lewis is grateful for the opportunity to work with a company that supports veterans.
“I’ve had friends who’ve been homeless vets because they couldn’t find jobs. All they need is the opportunity and Allstate has given me that opportunity,” he said. “They really care.”
Lewis’s work-life story gets even more joyous. Four months ago, he and his wife Latisha welcomed their first child, a baby girl named Elyse. He tells us that Boothe loves to plant kisses on this newest little member of the Lewis family.
Help veterans with PTSD get paired with a service dog by donating to Brandon Lewis’s fundraising page. The nonprofit that trained Boothe, Paws4People, asks each recipient to raise at least $10,000 to help the next veteran get a service dog.