Aug 8, 2016
Aug. 16, 2016
Former dog handler gives back by training dogs to help veterans suffering from PTSD
SALT LAKE CITY
- While tasked with the special mission of detecting and identifying explosive devices throughout Afghanistan, U.S. Marine Corps dog handler, Sam Wettstein, formed a special bond with his military working dog, Belle. Working side-by-side for nearly seven months, Wettstein and his Labrador retriever became almost inseparable, frequently conducting patrols in search of explosives. When the deployment ended in 2014, Wettstein had to bid farewell to his canine companion and return back to the United States.
After almost a year-long separation-and dozens of emails and pleas to a variety of organizations-Wettstein and Belle were reunited through a nonprofit company called Mission K9 Rescue.
"Reuniting with Belle gave me the opportunity to know and want to support and get involved with nonprofits like Mission K9 Rescue that helped to reunite Belle and me," said Wettstein, who is now an environmental studies major at Westminster College.
Shortly after the reunion, Wettstein was connected with an organization called Labs for Liberty, a nonprofit that specializes in training dogs to help veterans with PTSD. He is now an assistant dog trainer responsible for teaching dogs to help their future handlers with a myriad of daily tasks.
"I am currently working with two dogs, Pearl, a Belgian Malinois, who is going to be a PTSD dog, and Jake-Purple, a Labrador retriever, who is going to provide mobility assistance to a little girl," Wettstein said. "Pearl is being trained to recognize a variety of social cues associated with PTS, anxiety and flashbacks. Jake-Purple will help his handler pick up dropped items, walk up and down stairs, and be a good listener when she is practicing her speech therapy."
Westminster is an ideal institution for students like Wettstein who want to give back to their community. The college was recently ranked by Business Insider as one of the 25 best colleges for students who want to change the world.
"I believe that by taking the extra time I have and investing it into the military veteran community, I am making an impactful change for years to come," Wettstein said. "Veterans are this nation's greatest asset, and we need to do what it takes to ensure we take care of them."
Since he began working for Labs for Liberty, Wettstein has assisted in the training of six dogs and has helped more than 12 veterans suffering from PTSD.
"The mission of Labs for Liberty is to liberate American warriors by providing service dogs for PTSD and physical needs and to liberate and restore the warrior's family unit by providing opportunities to relax, reconnect and rejuvenate," he said. "I have not met one veteran who has not loved what the organization has done for them and their family."
Going forward, Wettstein hopes to support the Labs for Liberty mission at Westminster and the University of Utah by recruiting college students to help with the initial obedience of the dogs.
"Through the program, students will learn to be more responsible and balance their time effectively by having the responsibility of both training a dog and doing well in class," he said.
Wettstein has had a positive experience with the program and hopes to continue helping other veterans in need.
"Participating in Labs For Liberty has been amazing," Wettstein added. "I recently received a video from one of the soon-to-be handlers about their gratitude to the organization. The video was very touching. Knowing that we are making someone else's life better makes it all worth the time."
For more information on Labs for Liberty, visit www.labsforliberty.org.