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With service dog by his side, Army vet ponders billboard on veterans’ suicides: That could have been me

Bear, service dog, shakes the hand of Travis Johanson, U.S. Navy veteran, prior to the start of their 4 Paws 2 Freedom program graduation March 22, 2019 at Beale Air Force Base, California. 4 Paws 2 Freedom, a non-profit organization, conducts a six-month program to help train certified services dogs for military veterans, first responders with post-traumatic stress disorder and victims of abuse. It began at Beale for the first time in 2018. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Alexandre Montes)

On the side of Interstate 95, there’s now a new message on a digital billboard that flashes a grim but necessary reminder to all: “3,000 veteran suicides since January, 1, 2019.”

That number will be updated every week, and given Veterans Administration findings that each day 20 veterans kill themselves, it’ll quickly increase as the weeks go by.

Greg Wells looked up at that sign. He could have been on a billboard like that, he says. His brother already is. So are some of those with whom Wells served overseas.

To the fact he is still alive, he gives a lot of credit to Utah, a Rhodesian Ridgeback mix, who as if on cue lifted his head toward Wells, who then leaned over and gave him a quick smooch.

Wells and Utah came to this spot Wednesday morning, just north of Butler Boulevard, to mark the unveiling of the billboard message. Wells wore a leash over one shoulder, looping under his arm and then attaching to the dog’s collar, but their connection is far deeper than just that.

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“This leash is nothing but an umbilical cord,” Wells said. “My emotions flow through it. When he starts to react to me, then I know something’s wrong with me. I may not think it, I may think everything’s fine, but when he starts to react to me I know I need to check myself, check the surroundings, see what’s bugging me.”

Wells works for K9s for Warriors, a Ponte Vedra Beach-based nonprofit that matches service dogs with post-9/11 veterans who suffer from trauma as a result of their military service. The group put up the billboard message to bring more attention to the plight of veterans’ suicides, which Rory Diamond, the group’s CEO and an incoming city council member, called a “national crisis and a national shame.”

The billboard is on Interstate 95, near the parking lot of Carvana and its eight-story tower of cars, just north of Butler Boulevard. To northbound motorists, it’s visible on the left side of the highway.

K9s for Warriors has locations in Nocatee and Gainesville, with another opening this year in San Antonio, Texas. Veterans in 46 states have gone through three weeks of training with the dogs, who are provided to them at no cost.

“We look at the dogs as the bridge to the outside world,” Diamond said, adding there has been just one suicide among the 539 veterans who have gone through the program. That’s proof, he said, that the bond between dogs and veterans can help save lives.

Wells offers himself as evidence of that.

He’s 43, and lives in Ponte Vedra. He spent eight years in the Army and also worked in law enforcement as a deputy sheriff and with the Drug Enforcement Administration. He deployed to Iraq in 2003 and 2004, and later worked on contracts in Afghanistan with the Department of Justice, in counter-narcotics and police mentoring programs.

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He’s seen a lot. “Sometimes humanity can just be savage.”

Wells said he has post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury from eight improvised explosive devices that exploded near him.

In 2012, after his last encounter with an IED, he was sent home for medical treatment. Suddenly he could no longer do what he loved to do. He felt lost, without meaning.

“I felt I was on the forefront of fighting the war on terror, I was making differences in Afghanistan,” he said. “The ultimate goal to me was, ‘Let’s get the troops out, let them take over,’ that’s the end that we were working for — but that was taken away from me by that last IED. I was told you’re no longer good enough to do it, you don’t have the mental capacity to do it, you need to go home and fix yourself. They took away my sense of belonging.”

The PTSD, the brain injuries and the medications he took put him in a dark, dark place. Though he worried about his family — his wife Kim and his son, now 22, and daughter, now 12 — he seriously considered suicide.

“I had a plan, my plan was in place,” he said. “It was kind of like, I want to do it, but I don’t. For me, it was one of those things where I hoped I’d get caught.”

His life changed when his wife saw a Facebook post by K9s for Warriors and talked him into getting help. That’s how he met Utah, who provides him with unconditional love, attention and some powerful motivation.

Utah, like all the dogs in the program, came from a shelter, so no one’s exactly sure how old he is. Six-ish, perhaps, said Wells, who’s had him by his side for the last four years.

“He’s helped me push myself more than any therapy could do, more than the medications. He’s not the cure for PTSD, but he’s part of it,” Wells said.

Wells has seen the results of trauma all too closely: His brother, Jeremiah, who had PTSD after 18 years in the Army, committed suicide last year.

“I got a phone call one night, Dad told me he was gone,” he said. “He’d fought his demons as long as he could. I tried to help him, tried to get him involved in our program. He had things he wanted to try to do and it just spiraled. It happened that quick.”

Others still suffer, Wells said, still need help. That’s where he and Utah fit in.

Wells is now K9s for Warriors’ lead trainer for the veterans who come for help at each of the Florida campuses. Working alongside him, each day, is Utah. The dog makes sure of that.

“He forces me to get out of the house,” Wells said. “Obviously I have a job, but if I’m having a real bad day I could call in sick. But he still needs to go. He comes and gets me: He’s like, ‘We need to go, we need to go to work. I’ve got guys I’ve got to go train.’ “

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© 2019 The Florida Times-Union (Jacksonville, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.