With just over a month until our V-Soft Cares Annual Charity Golf Scramble on June 28th, we wanted to give you a better understanding of what our charity partner, Dogs Helping Heroes (DHH), is all about. What better way to learn about a charity than by sharing one veteran's story. We spoke to Justin Troxell, a Marine Corps veteran and recipient of one of DHH's service animals.
DHH's mission is to "help restore lost freedom and peace of mind to wounded veterans, first responders, and their families by gifting specially trained and certified assistance dogs." The charity started in 2013 by co-founder, David Benson, who trained a labrador retriever and gave it to an Iraq War veteran experiencing PTSD. Countless lives have been changed since then, including Justin Troxell's. Justin received his assistance dog, Cleo, a Belgian Malinois, in 2015.
Justin is a 36-year-old husband, father, and Marine Corps veteran. He has been married for over 20 years to his wife, Britney, and has three children, Austin, 19 Ariana, 16, and Alaya, 12. In his free time, he watches his kids play sports, run demolition derbies, or just whatever makes them smile.
"When I am not doing that, you can find me camping and fishing with my sidekick, Cleo, at our favorite fishing spot at the Wolf Creek Dam," said Justin.
Justin and Cleo pose with their catch.
Justin served 10 years in the United States Marine Corps, doing multiple combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan until he was medically retired in 2014. According to Justin, in Marine Corps Bootcamp, one of the first things you're told is that every Marine is a rifleman no matter your job title. "Out of all of my deployments, only one of those did I actually do my job as a tank mechanic, for the rest I was a ground-pounding grunt."
During his time in the military, Justin received both mental and physical wounds that constantly picked away at his mental state. These wounds made him question reality even to the point of contemplating whether to stay alive.
"I reached out to my VA psychiatrist and told her about not being able to go out in public and my issues with my stability and she recommended that I look into Dogs Helping Heroes."
From there, Justin set up an appointment to meet with the charity and had the opportunity to talk to other veterans who had service dogs. He decided to give it a shot. Justin's experience was a little different than most. He submitted an application for a service dog but already had a dog in mind that he had a bond with. Justin adopted Cleo when she was 6 months old and they started training soon thereafter.
"I brought Cleo in front of the board and trainer to be evaluated to see if she would be a good fit as a service dog and she passed with flying colors! She was the first personally-owned dog in DHH's history. Don’t get me wrong, even if she wasn’t rescued, she has rescued me in more ways than one."
After his experience with DHH, Justin committed to staying involved with the charity that helped him so much by attending events, volunteering, and offering advice to fellow "teams" (teams are considered any hero-dog pairs).
"My favorite thing about Cleo is no matter what is going on she is there for me — nosing or pawing me, trying to tell me it’s okay and to calm down," Justin said. "Cleo has helped me in so many ways but the biggest way is she saved me from leaving this earth too soon about a year after I got her. She has brought me back to life in many ways. Before it would be hard for me to go into public places, now I have that battle buddy that watches my six, who helps me up when I’m down or brings me back when I’m lost in time."
According to Justin, there are a few things he wishes other heroes would consider.
"I wish more veterans, first responders, and gold-star families would seek the help they need," he said. "Know that you're not alone. Granted, you may not need or want a service dog but help is out there for you. I was that guy. I fought it for years until it almost won."
"The greatest benefit of a service dog is to have that reminder at your side all the time telling you 'it's okay, push on, I got you, I’m here, if you drop the ball I’ll pick it up and give it back.'"