William Rommel once believed suicide was the answer to a problem he faced. He had frequent apparitions of trauma and found it difficult to live a normal life after his military service.
“He’s doing it right now,” Rommel said during an interview as his service dog Rio nuzzled his hands, encouraging Rommel to stroke his fur. “Since we are talking about stuff that gets me a little emotional, (Rio) keeps my anxiety down when I pet him. That way I’m able to talk without getting upset.”
Rommel, 47, from Brick Township, Ocean County, served in the U.S. Army from 1996 to 2002. When his service concluded, Rommel had difficulty adjusting to civilian life. He explained that routine tasks such as visiting a bank or a grocery store were unnecessarily complicated.
“It was then that I tried to commit suicide,” said Rommel, who re-entered the Army in 2003 because he “could not cope” in everyday life. He served in the military for another 10 years.
Rommel was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2008. PTSD is a disorder in which a person has difficulty recovering after experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event.
Symptoms of PTSD can include disturbing thoughts, feelings or dreams, mental or physical distress, difficulty sleeping, and changes in how a person thinks and feels.
According to greatergood.org, about 22 veterans commit suicide each day.
“In 2013, I had two years left before I could retire. I couldn’t do it. I was choosing between suicide and going to work every day,” Rommel said. “We had a lot of horrible events happen.”
After leaving the Army in 2013, Rommel went right to work. He tested out several types of jobs before he moved from Arizona to New Jersey in 2015.
In 2016, Rommel participated in “Operation Ruck It,” a 22-kilometer ruck-style walk along the Jersey Shore to raise awareness about veteran suicide and funds for the nonprofit organization Operation Restored Warrior.
“It was (at the walk) that I saw a (veteran) with a dog,” Rommel said. “I asked him about his dog and he told me about K9s For Warriors … he said (the program) would change my life.”
K9s For Warriors is an American charity and veterans service organization that provides service dogs to veterans. In 2017, the organization raised more than $8.5 million and paired 114 veterans with service dogs.
According to K9s For Warriors, “Our focus is on healing and helping the veteran and paired service dog build a bond to facilitate healing and recovery. As the healing takes place, the reintegration to society begins.”
Rommel said matches are based on a veteran’s personality and lifestyle. A professional dog trainer determines which canine will be a good match for each veteran in the program.
The program includes a free three-week training course in Florida. During that time, the veterans become acquainted with their new service dogs.
“The first words I heard when I (arrived at training) was ‘breathe.’ I wasn’t in a good spot and I was nervous,” Rommel said. “Everything, the facilities, was all donated. There were acres of training for the dogs and a five-star resort for us (veterans).
“On the second day, you meet your (canine) partner and are tethered to the dog. You stay that way for the 21 days you are there,” he said.
According to k9sforwarriors.org, 90% of the service dogs received by the organization come from rescue shelters or high-kill shelters, or are surrendered by their owners.
Rommel was matched with a black Labradane named Rio who was rescued from a high-kill shelter at the age of 5 months. Rio is now 3 years old and Rommel described his canine companion as his right-hand man, saying, “from day one, (Rio) has been by my side.”
Rommel said Rio saved his life.
“He keeps me away from myself,” Rommel said. “When my kids and my wife go to school, (Rio) keeps me out of my own head. (Rio) knows if I’m thinking too deeply about things. He grounds me and pulls me right back down so I don’t stay in those (negative) thoughts. Otherwise, I would sit and stare and be stuck (in thought). He breaks that.
“Nobody else is allowed to feed or walk Rio. His everyday needs are met by me. Even if you are having a really bad day and you don’t feel like doing much, (Rio) is going to keep you at that minimum schedule” to feed him and let him out, he said.
Rommel enjoys taking Rio to the beach where they can enjoy the sunrise together. When Rommel takes his children to the park, he lets Rio run around “and just be a dog.”
“(Rio) loves to go to work. When it’s time to put on his vest, he gets excited and knows that is what he is doing now. (Rio) has changed my life completely. Not just mine, but other veterans he has been in contact with. One veteran did not even like dogs, but now he is on the list to get (a service dog),” he said.
Rommel said Rio has been trained to make him feel safe when his (Rommel’s) back is turned, such as when he is using an ATM or standing in a line at a store.
For more information about service dogs for veterans, visit www.k9sforwarriors.org