- Associated Press - Saturday, March 22, 2014

CARMEL, Ind. (AP) - When Justin Morseth held his newborn son for the first time, the moment “broke the dam” holding back memories from his time as an infantry captain and platoon leader in Iraq.

“It suddenly brought back repressed memories of some children that had died in Iraq,” said his wife, Megan. “It just kind of exploded everything in him.”

Justin Morseth, who was honorably discharged not long after his return from Iraq in 2003, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder - a severe anxiety disorder commonly characterized by flashbacks, nightmares and a heightened state of alertness - and a traumatic brain injury.

The life-changing event of their son’s birth in 2006 triggered the PTSD, taking it from “a minor inconvenience to crippling in a matter of hours,” his wife told The Indianapolis Star (http://indy.st/Opyhr8 ). He disappeared from the hospital not long after holding their son.

The Carmel couple, now parents of two children, credit the constant and calm presence of their rescue dog Samson with pulling Justin out of his memories. “I definitely think Samson saved his life.” Megan Morseth said.

That connection was the inspiration behind Pets Healing Vets, a program run by the Humane Society for Hamilton County that provides shelter animals for free to Hoosier veterans with PTSD, a traumatic brain injury or both. It also includes the animal’s training and medical care for life.

Samson has died, but Morseth said the family’s current rescue dogs Lucy and Kobi continue to keep him grounded.

“My dogs let me be broken in front of them. They don’t judge. My bad days don’t ruin their days. I don’t have to add that guilt to the pile of emotions I’m already feeling,” he said. “Instead, they offer consistent affection and love. They don’t give up on me.”

Since the Morseths and the Hamilton County animal rescue center started Pets Healing Vets in 2012, 13 veterans have been paired with a rescue dog.

Greg Sexton, an Army Reserves staff sergeant from Noblesville, is among them. He was severely injured in an explosion while serving in Iraq. Like Justin Morseth, he suffered a traumatic brain injury and has PTSD.

Sexton got Patton, a black Labrador retriever, through the program. He said the emotional support and comfort she provides has been “a huge help” in his day-to-day life with PTSD.

Married and father of two children, Sexton said he’s still uneasy in crowds and always on guard, instincts leftover from tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. The reaction can be so intense that his body and hands shake and he can get sick to his stomach when he goes out. But when he is able to take Patton along, Sexton said, she “can sense that there’s something wrong with me, so she’ll kind of guard me.” Being able to see and pet her help because they serve as a way to “get my mind off the crowd.”

Sexton said the adoption has been a win-win for his family and Patton, who was a stray dropped off at the shelter.

“You get to rescue a dog, and the dog kind of gets to rescue you too,” he said.

Megan Morseth said that’s the whole point of the program - to bring together two groups who are “so misunderstood” and let them heal each other.

“Bringing those two together is Kismet. It’s the way that it should be,” Morseth said. “They both understand anxiety. They understand pain.”

Becki Harris, who manages the Humane Society’s behavior and rescue programs, said it has been “really neat to get to see the transformations.” She said the people at the shelter who are involved in the program are passionate about it because it gives them the chance to give back to people who “do so much for us.”

“We really feel that these veterans are part of our family,” she said. “We become invested.”

Harris said the Humane Society wants to continue to grow the program and is considering expanding the program to include law enforcement officers suffering from PTSD.

But the main focus, she said, is finding more veterans.

Sexton encourages veterans to get help, whether that means applying to get a rescue animal through Pets Healing Vets, going to the Veterans Affairs Hospital, or finding another avenue.

“Don’t bottle it up and don’t take it to your grave, so to speak,” he said. “There are things out there to help you out. Just get the help you need.”

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Information from: The Indianapolis Star, http://www.indystar.com