Veteran suicide is no stranger to David Sharpe, an Air Force veteran and founder of Companions for Heroes, a nonprofit that helps American heroes by providing them a trained service animal rescued from a shelter, free of charge.
Losing his own two close friends to suicide and nearly taking his own life set him on a mission to reach struggling veterans like himself nearly 10 years ago.
Sharpe was struggling with the death of his friends and incidents during his Middle East deployments with the U.S. Air Force Security Forces, which included coming face to face with a Taliban sympathizer’s weapon.
“I got pissed at God,” Sharpe told American Military News of his friend’s suicide.
“Why did Greg do that? It should have been me,” he recalled of his thoughts at the time.
His anger turned to violent outbursts, which evolved into drinking and prescription drug abuse. Then he hit rock bottom.
“I got a 45 pistol, charged it and put the barrel in my mouth, as I’m squeezing the trigger, my rescue Pit bull walked through the door,” he explained.
He had adopted the Pit bull puppy, Cheyenne, not long before. Cheyenne had helped Sharpe come down from his outbursts, fixating on a source of comfort and love.
When Sharpe held the loaded pistol a second time, Cheyenne stepped in.
“My dog walked in and licked my face. After twice in a month of trying to take my life, and both times the door was latched, I said… I have a purpose: live for my dog. She saved me,” he said.
He felt immense relief after Cheyenne encouraged him to choose to live, and the changes were seen by his family and friends. It wasn’t until eight years later that he received formal post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression diagnoses.
In July 2009, he began his mission of helping veterans coping with mental illness, particularly those on the brink of suicide, by pairing them with a trained dog saved from an animal shelter.
His efforts became the nonprofit Companions for Heroes. Nearly 10 years later, the organization has helped save more than 3,300 veterans, Gold Star families and first responders.
If an applicant is approved, Sharpe’s organization finds them a dog at an animal shelter, and provides the training and supplies. They also provide training to applicants who already have a dog.
There are “161 charities in this nature of work and we’re number one,” Sharpe said. “We’re also the only one who helps Korean War all the way to post-9/11 [veterans],” adding that many Vietnam and Korean War veterans are denied by most charities, which focus on post-9/11 veterans.
Sharpe recognizes that Gold Star families, military spouses and caregivers are also in need.
“We want to put that dog or cat in their hands as soon as possible. As we know with suicide rates, particularly as we know the vets and Gold Star wives and military caregivers are committing suicide more than vets,” he explained.
If someone is interested in getting a trained dog – which generally run thousands and thousands of dollars – they should apply to Companion for Heroes, and if they are approved for the program, the cost is covered entirely by the nonprofit.