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Beth & Budge: Service dog helps Iraq war veteran regain her independence

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

There’s always a lot to be gained from adopting a dog — abiding loyalty, affection and companionship for starters.

But Beth Burton, a Hagley resident, got even more than that when she brought home a black Labrador she calls Budge.

She got her independence back.

“You’re never the same coming back from Iraq or Afghanistan as you were before you left,” said Burton, 48, a medically retired Army veteran, who was stationed in Iraq until June 2009. “I can’t be like I was, but I’m closer now. I’m the closest to normal I can be.”

She owes that to Budge, a specially trained service dog provided by America’s VetDogs to help her manage and cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. She is the only veteran in the state to have a VetDog.

Burton has been haunted by PTSD since her return to the U.S.

In addition to intense nightmares that regularly plague her, Burton found it difficult to go out in public after returning to civilian life. She was anxious, always looking over her shoulder after so much time in a war zone where she had to be vigilant every minute of the day against an attack that could end her life.

Whether riding in a car, sitting in a restaurant or having her hair done, she couldn’t relax and, as a result, neither could her husband, Jay. He was always watching her when they were together, making sure she wasn’t going to go into a panic, and called home constantly to check on her when they were apart.

It’s been only a few weeks since Burton took custody of Budge, but he’s already had an immense effect on her life.

“What he’s done for me and Jay, I can’t even put into words,” Burton said. “Jay can drop me at a store and leave me alone. I’m still not totally comfortable, but I’m more comfortable. Budge has given me back my life. He’s given me some normalcy.”

And with it, Budge has given Jay peace of mind. He feels more comfortable going to work, knowing Budge is around to calm his wife if she needs it, and with Beth more relaxed when they go out, Jay can relax too.

“I’m not the one that has to look over her shoulder all the time any more,” Jay said.

Wearing his uniform, a vest emblazoned with the VetDogs logo, Budge goes everywhere with Burton and part of his job includes watching her back and providing a warning when someone is approaching so she isn’t surprised. Budge also senses her moods. He knows when she’s anxious and when she’s tired or hurting mentally or physically, and provides comfort through touch.

“He senses even a little bit of tension,” Burton said. “He’ll put his head or his paw on me like ‘I’m here, everything’s OK.’ He’s my guardian angel.”

Jay said he can see the difference in his wife and it’s amazing.

VetDogs are “just awesome, awesome creatures,” he said.

Burton hopes Budge will eventually help her get well enough that she won’t need to take medication for PTSD anymore and she won’t need another service dog when Budge reaches retirement age, allowing her to keep him for the rest of his life.

The vest Budge wears is his signal that he’s “on duty.” The difference when it comes off is noticeable.

Without it, he looks like any other dog, eager to greet visitors and be petted, or run and play. In the vest, he stays steadfastly by Burton’s side and appears at attention, always alert even when dozing under the table where Burton is seated.

But on duty or not, Budge is always paying attention to Burton, ready to offer aid if she should need him.

“He’s there for me 24/7,” she said.

Burton gets terrible migraines and she said Budge senses them coming on before she does.

He offers his own brand of praise when she takes her medicine. And at home, he helps her sleep more confidently, because she knows he’ll wake her up if she starts having a nightmare. He’s so attuned to her, he can sense her tension even when he’s in a deep sleep, she said.

If Burton is having a really bad reaction when she’s in public, Budge even knows to lead her out of it, she said. With his help, she can go out more often, with more confidence and she can stay longer.

Before, she said, she was always counting the minutes until she could go home and she was restricted to places where she was surrounded by people she knew and trusted.

“Now I can sit and almost enjoy myself,” she said.

One thing Burton hasn’t tried with Budge yet is going to a movie theater, but that’s next on her list and it’s something she’s looking forward to being able to do again, she said.

She hasn’t gone to the movies since 2008.

When Burton was training with Budge in New York earlier this month, there was a Vietnam veteran in her class. When the class took their dogs to a mall to work on basic obedience commands, Burton noticed the man was crying. She asked if he was alright and he told her it was the first time he had been to a mall and felt comfortable since 1970.

“This is what these dogs do,” Burton said.

VetDogs, a project started in 2003 by the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind, provides dogs to past and present servicemen and women. The dogs assist veterans who are blind or have other disabilities. Physical therapy dogs are trained to work with amputees in military and VA hospitals, and combat stress relief dogs are trained to be deployed overseas with combat stress control teams.

For those they help, the service provided by dogs like Budge is priceless, but there is a very real cost associated with the intense training VetDogs have to go through. More than $50,000 goes into training and placing a guide or service dog.

There is no cost to the recipient of the dog and the program receives no federal funding, so VetDogs relies entirely on donations, fundraising and the licensing and sale of VetDogs products for its operations.

Having gained so much from the program, Burton wants to give back, so she’s organizing a VetDogs fundraiser on May 29. The inaugural event will be from 1-6 p.m. at Pawleys Island Tavern and will feature music by Jay, as well as Brian Roessler, My Buddy Todd, Menace to Sobriety, and Doc Simons and Friends.

Burton is looking for donations of items and gift certificates from local businesses to be given away at the event in chance drawings.

For information about the fundraiser, e-mail Burton at BurtonIAm@aol.com.

Learn more about America’s VetDogs at vetdogs.org.

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