In 2012, U.S. Marine Chris Van Etten lost a part of both of his legs when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded while he was on patrol in Afghanistan.
His injuries were significant and he was lucky to have survived. But Van Etten’s recovery was made easier through the efforts of civilian dog trainer, Torre Willadsen, whom he met while serving in the war-torn nation. Willadsen took it upon himself to ensure the wounded veteran was reunited with his yellow lab Harley, an Improvised Explosive Device Detection Dog who had been by his side during many harrowing missions.
Van Etten credits the now-7-year-old yellow Lab with improving both the mental and physical parts of his recovery. And he says veterans who are struggling with rehabilitation as well as post-traumatic stress disorder could be helped tremendously with a program created by Willadsen called Dog2DogTags.
“One of the biggest questions I get asked (by vets) about Harley is where they can go to get a dog. Dogs2DogTags is able to provide a form of therapy that veterans will not be scared to admit they want or need,” Van Etten told PEOPLE. “A big reason why vets don’t get the help they deserve is they are too proud to admit they need that help in the first place. But who doesn’t want a dog to help you get through the tougher times in your life? I think these dogs could really do some good and potentially save some lives.”
Willadsen notes the grim statistics on veteran suicides — estimated at 20 deaths each day, according to a comprehensive study released by the Veteran’s Administration in July.
Through his non-profit, Willadsen wants to do his part to reduce this number by not only reuniting military dogs with their retired handlers, but also by adopting dogs from the Humane Society, as well as shelters, where they might otherwise be euthanized, and placing them with vets who need a buddy who can help with postwar living and offer unconditional devotion.
His model is efficient — he trains the dogs for free — and there isn’t a long wait for veterans who need a companion immediately. Most importantly, there is no bureaucratic hold up as his operation is run by veterans who were previously deployed, which helps Dog2DogTags make the return to civilian life a smoother transition.
Willadsen, who joined up with the Marines as a civilian contractor to train bomb-finding dogs and handlers in Afghanistan in 2011, was revered by many in the Marine battalion where he worked. They dubbed him “a mother hen” who looked out for them, and described him “almost like our brother” — high praise that Willadsen is honored to receive.
He was there at the base in Afghanistan the night Van Etten went out on patrol (without Harley) and was devastated when he got a call to see his staff sergeant and found the platoon deeply upset.
“Who was it?” Willadsen asked. And when they told him it was Van Etten, “I sat there with the whole platoon and cried. It was from that point on my thoughts were ‘how do I get Chris’s dog to him?'”
Once Willadsen himself had returned to the U.S., his idea for a dogs and veterans non-profit was born. “I knew I had to get guys their dogs. And I knew other people out there would need it.”
Among those thankful to receive a new furry friend was Marine Sgt. Matt Moore, who is still recovering from a traumatic brain injury sustained when he was too close to the blasts of three IEDs on the same day. In addition to the brain injury, Moore also sustained emotional trauma when he lost a close friend during his last deployment.
“That was one of the most gut-wrenching experiences of my life,” Moore told PEOPLE.
As he sought treatment, Moore’s doctor suggested a companion dog and Willadsen stepped up to help, finding just the right match and driving from Sheboygan Falls, Wisconsin, where he lives, to Texas to drop the Boxer named Gambino off to the ailing Marine.
“It was love at first sight. He’s just been my best friend ever since,” Moore says of Gambino, now 2 1/2.
Moore lauds the power of a dog to heal many kinds of wounds.
“It had a huge impact. It’s helped my diagnosis a lot and helped me be able to focus more on the physical issues versus the mental issues. It’s just an unbiased friend. It’s probably been the single best recovery asset that I have had throughout this whole process.”
Willadsen says many more vets are being prescribed a therapy animal, but costs can range from $30,000 to $40,000 per dog and the wait is often long. He hopes to expand his efforts through greater public awareness to ensure other struggling vets know the wag of a tail and the pure love a canine pal can offer.
In a small way, through his training and concern, Willadsen is not only saving the lives of dogs who need homes, but also the lives of our military heroes who served to keep their homeland free.