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Canine champions veteran’s mental health

Vietnam veteran Jim “Doc” Anderson and battle buddy Zamp
Vietnam veteran Jim “Doc” Anderson and battle buddy Zamp

Veterans often reflect on the close friendships forged throughout their time in service. Whether they enlisted around the same time, trained side by side, or engaged in combat together, many say that there is no greater comfort than having a trusted comrade next to you.

Yet a disabled veteran’s family and friends who have only known civilian life often grapple with understanding the effects of service-connected illnesses and injuries, including post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. These “invisible injuries” can contribute to feelings of isolation and depression and thoughts of suicide.

Jim “Doc” Anderson knows this reality all too well. His service as a mass casualties expert in the Air Force during Vietnam took its toll on his mental and emotional health. Suffering under the weight of his PTSD, Jim attempted suicide three times. Coming to a low point in his life, he recognized the need for a battle buddy to help him navigate through his days and nights.

Enter Zamp the service dog. Named after Louis Zamperini—a World War II prisoner of war and subject of the book and film “Unbroken”—this reliable canine companion was the perfect match for Jim. 

“He is an incredibly special service dog, and everyone who has met him agrees,” said Jim. “Since Zamp came into my life full time, he has made a major difference, as witnessed by my wife, therapists and psychiatrists. All agree that they have seen a tremendous change in me.” 

“My doctor said that he has never seen me smile so much.” 

Part of the story behind those smiles begins with the DAV Charitable Service Trust. Thanks to a grant from the Trust in 2014, Anderson—who is also a DAV life member—and other veterans have been able to connect with faithful furry friends like Zamp through Veterans Moving Forward, Inc.

The grant was used to kick-start this nonprofit that trains and places service dogs with wounded, ill and injured veterans. And our nation’s heroes have been paired with devoted pups ever since.

“Providing these great service dogs to our deserving veterans is what gets me up in the morning,” said DAV life member Gordon Sumner, President and CEO of Veterans Moving Forward. “We have a superb team of staff and volunteers who work 365 days a year to ensure that we accomplish our mission of providing service dogs to veterans like Jim who are dealing with mental and/or physical challenges, at no cost to the veteran or their family.”

Zamp’s value to Jim’s quality of life has been apparent from the beginning.

“Once we know what a veteran needs the dog to do, we customize the training to meet that veteran’s needs,” said Kathleen Poulson, program director and head trainer with Veterans Moving Forward. “Doc met Zamp for the first time on Zoom during the COVID shutdown. So when Doc came to meet him in person, Zamp stayed with him in the hotel overnight.”

It was in the middle of their first night together that Zamp proved his merit.

“Zamp woke Doc up from a nightmare. He realized that Doc was his person and he knew just what to do,” said Kathleen. “To watch the two of them interact and to see the changes in Doc was remarkable.” 

For these two, man’s best friend has taken on a whole new meaning. 

“The bond that Zamp and I have is the kind that only military people can understand,” said Jim. “In the day-to-day, he has given me purpose again.”

Learn more about how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) impacts veterans.

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