ABERDEEN, S.D. (AP) - A plan hatched between friends over a couple of beers doesn’t always produce sane results.
Take, for instance, an idea for a 5-kilometer race in the rural South Dakota town of Tolstoy, population 38. In the middle of winter.
On the surface, it’s about as fundamentally sound as a lead balloon.
But this - the brainchild of Katie Nold of Onaka, Joann Rader of Hoven and Jenn McCloud of Brookings - is about more than bucking the South Dakota windchill. It is, quite literally, saving lives.
The Tolstoy Wind Chiller 5K, run every January since 2015, has raised more than $10,000 in its short-lived history. While this year’s event was canceled thanks to blizzard-level conditions and no-travel advisories across the eastern half of the state, all of the money from the annual event has gone to benefit Labs For Liberty, a nonprofit entity that provides fully trained service dogs to military veterans.
To date, Labs for Liberty has raised, trained and donated nearly 100 dogs to veterans across the country.
Chris Campbell is one of those veterans, and said he owes his life, literally and figuratively, to the program, the Aberdeen American News reported. A Marine veteran, Campbell was severely injured just before a big deployment, resulting in a broken back and a few other structural injuries. Doctors gave him the option of continuing with his deployment or treating the injuries right away. Treating the injuries would have meant giving up the Marines. Campbell, who lives in Ohio, chose to deploy.
He returned home, broken physically and in severe mental and physical pain. He was med-boarded and forced to retire from the Marines. It was, he said, like being stripped of an identity.
“It put me into a down-spin,” Campbell said. “It’s a total darkness because all I wanted to do was be a Marine. The guys have essentially become your family and become your tribe. You eat, sleep, bleed, cry, you do everything together with these guys. Their family becomes your family. Their kids become your nieces and nephews and your kids become their nieces and nephews. And now, like that, it’s all gone.”
For a while, opioids helped the physical pain, though after three years of constant use, they were more to keep withdrawal symptoms at bay. But nothing touched the post-traumatic stress disorder.
Campbell recalled a trip to the store with his daughter when an anxiety attack nearly felled him.
“We’re at the grocery store, just her and I, and all of a sudden I start having an anxiety attack or PTSD attack,” Campbell said. “I’d never truly had a full-fledged one for sure. Like, I can’t catch my breath. Everything is closing in and getting foggy, and I’m just freaking out. I pulled the cart over to the side and I put my head down on the bar of the cart and close my eyes and I’m focusing on my breathing. My daughter, who’s sitting in the cart, starts rubbing my head. She goes, ‘Hey, I’ve got you. Twyla is your protector. I’ve got you, Daddy.’ I just start weeping. Just weeping. And I was like, ‘OK, enough is enough. Something’s got to give.’”
Enter Labs for Liberty.
Campbell had already been approved for the program and paired with a dog, whom he named Gracie.
“She was going to be our saving grace,” Campbell said. “We end up losing our daughter, three weeks before my wife’s due date, and so it’s just like one thing after another just bang, bang, bang, bang. Could life get any more dark right now?”
Just before that day in the grocery store, Campbell learned that Gracie had failed out of the Labs for Liberty program. She just wasn’t confident enough to continue. After nearly a year of waiting, Campbell was back at square one.
But then, a light.
Jake Tschirhart lives in Utah, but had gotten to know the Nold family through Labs for Liberty. After getting out of the Marines, Tschirhart found himself needing direction. The Marines had always provided one for him, and, though he never deployed, he felt the void.
“I think Labs for Liberty gave me that mission back,” Tschirhart said. “And I got to do something that I never really got to do when I was in the Marines. I got to really, really help other people that have been through some really, really hard times. So I think that it’s given me a whole new purpose, and seeing how much it’s helped Chris and our other friend James, you know, it’s changed their lives. It really does give me so much joy and fulfillment.”
Tschirhart was paired up with a dog, Brody, but joined up with the Air Force and needed to do some training for his new position. Then he heard of Campbell’s situation and had an idea. What if Campbell took Brody while Tschirhart trained Campbell’s new dog, Bodhi?
Tschirhart called Campbell. It was a phone call that changed everything.
“I met Jake and I was just like, wow, like this guy is truly just the definition of selfless and humble,” Campbell said. “We just clicked right away and me and Brody clicked right away, and now I have the most normality in my life thanks to Brody, for the first time in 10 years. I couldn’t sleep. I would have night terrors every night. I couldn’t even go to the grocery store. I went from that to literally not being stressed out ever. It’s like I’ve gotten my one of my teammates back. And I’ve got a massive family. I have my tribe and that tribe is Labs for Liberty.”
In the six months since Brody joined Campbell and his family in Cincinnati, life has changed drastically. Campbell found the strength to quit opioids, cold turkey, throwing them in the toilet the night before his wife discovered she was pregnant. For two weeks, Campbell endured withdrawal - nausea, sleepless nights, anxiety.
“Basically for two weeks I was contemplating suicide, but not at the same time, because I knew what it was,” he said. “I knew I’ve just got to get to the next day, I’ve just got to get to the next day, I’ve just got to get to the next day. It was one of the most hopeless situations because it seemed like it was never going to go away.”
Through it all, there was Brody, faithfully by Campbell’s side, enduring with him, reminding him that there was a next day.
Now, Campbell is off all medications, against his doctors’ wishes. He left the house again. He goes to the grocery store. He took his family on vacation. He and Brody traveled together, flying to South Dakota in a snowstorm. Brody, in addition to pulling Campbell back from anxiety attacks, acts as a stabilizer when Campbell needs one. He picks things up when they’re just too much or too far to reach. He tends to Campbell’s wife, too, when grief crashes in, as it inevitably does.
Campbell and his wife are expecting a baby boy this spring, and he has enrolled in school with the intent to become a teacher. He and Bodhi will be reunited when Bodhi’s training is complete, though when that is is a bit uncertain since each dog’s training is custom-tailored to the individual.
Until then, he has Brody. He has normalcy. He has hope.
“I’m free,” Campbell said. “I’m free. The shackles are gone.”
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