Onyx went through an intense program to become assistance dog through the K9 for Warriors program. (photo by Kirk Gollwitzer)
Onyx went through an intense program to become assistance dog through the K9 for Warriors program. (photo by Kirk Gollwitzer)

Archived Story

Norris speaks to American Legion about K9s For Warriors

Published 11:47pm Thursday, December 19, 2013

Jennifer Norris of Bethel, Maine, along with her assistance dog Onyx, paid a visit to the American Legion Tryon Post 250 and shared stories of her heartfelt, lifesaving relationship with Onyx with members of the post.

Post member Ambrose Mills, along with fellow members, remembered Onyx as a puppy from the local Service Animal Project (SAP).  The group had bid the puppy farewell for her trip to the program’s training camp in Florida.

Jennifer Norris with assistance dog Onyx. (photos by Kirk Gollwitzer)
Jennifer Norris with assistance dog Onyx. (photos by Kirk Gollwitzer)

“I heard that Jennifer was going to be passing through the area so I invited her back to give everyone a second look at the fully trained assist dog,” said Mills.

Ann Goodheart, one of the co-founders of SAP, created in March 2012, was also on hand to present Onyx and spoke passionately about the local dedication of caretakers, veterinarians and support community.

SAP identifies and accesses shelter and rescue dogs locally, while working in association with the K9s for Warriors project.

Post commander Mike Collins was also happy to see the young dog once again, but this time with Norris.

“We are so proud to send off dogs from our area that will lend so much help to so many people,” said Collins.

Norris, a 15-year veteran of the Air National Guard, started her discussion in tears and ended with laughter, as she spoke about how her 15-month-old female, black lab mix, saved her from 17-years of mental wounds sustained during her military service.

Members of the post listened intently as Norris spoke about how two separate attacks of sexual abuse within the confines of her own military units incited a level of anxiety that kept her captive within her own home.

“I couldn’t leave my own home and I hated to be looked at by others,” said Norris, holding back tears.

It wasn’t until she began seeing similarities with others in the military that she sought help and received a diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) Norris said.

Like many people in her area, Norris sought help at Togus Veterans Service Organizations in Maine.

For years, Norris attended military sexual trauma therapy while all the time looking over her shoulders to prevent a chance meeting with her perpetrator. Norris said that fear and anxiety traveled with her everywhere she went, not knowing who was in back of her watching her every move.

“I broke out in sweats just walking down the street, had headaches and was hyper-vigilant. I couldn’t cry, couldn’t sleep and I hated social interaction,” said Norris.

Norris said a friend suggested she enter a program called K9s For Warriors, an organization in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to be service dogs specific to people with PTSD.

Norris said she was frightful and extremely skeptical about successfully completing the three-week training program away from home, but immediately found solace as she bonded with her newfound fury friend. As the organization touts, “people with PTSD come to us on two feet and leave on six,” and that is exactly what Norris experienced last May.

Norris said Onyx was not considered an attack dog but more a barrier to danger.

“She is always covering me, she’s got my back,” said Norris.  She said the moment Onyx puts on her working vest, which clearly signifies “service-dog – do not pet”; she is ready for business creating a safe-zone buffer and keeping a watchful eye on all of the human activity around.

The moment the vest is removed, Norris said, Onyx reverts back to a relaxed lapdog that actually sleeps in the same bed with her and husband Lee.

“I’ve realized one thing for sure; it’s time to get a larger bed,” said Lee Norris, who also suffers from the effects of PTSD.

Lee Norris said he once thought he could never adopt the services of an assistance dog because of the stigma it sends out of the military and public at large.

Lee Norris said having a dog on a leash that is clearly identified as an assistance dog, can send out a message of weakness in the form of a true disability,” he said. “For a person in the military problems can arise downstream.

For this reason, Norris travels the country meeting with veterans suffering from the effects of PTSD and is also working with lawmakers in Washington to increase the awareness of this debilitating condition.
Norris said the military has to find ways to accommodate serviceman with better pathways to help, rather than falling under unfair scrutiny and possible discharge.

Norris spoke about the valuable benefits she received from Onyx.

“I don’t feel alone anymore and I feel safe again,” said Norris, as she knelt down and hugged her attentive canine while his watchful and caring eyes looked on.

For more information on K9s For Warriors visit www.k9sforwarriors.org.

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