Shaun Standley thought he was going to be a career military man. Serving as a critical care nursing officer with the Canadian Army, the Port Alberni veteran loved his job.
Standley was deployed to Afghanistan twice, in 2005 and 2008. He spent seven months working in a medical area that saw trauma patients brought in from the frontlines; he does not talk in detail about what he saw over there.
“For those who have been to Afghanistan, there’s no explanation necessary. For those who haven’t, no explanation will ever do,” he said. He saw trauma, he dealt with life-or-death situations, and he worked on whoever needed his medical help no matter which side of the conflict they had been on, because that’s what his job was.
Coming home to civilian life was difficult: decisions were no longer made under threat of life or death.
“Over there decisions mattered,” he said. “I came back and people were arguing over a Tickle Me Elmo doll.
“Even all these years later I struggle with the civilian world. You go from a ‘we’ environment to a ‘me’ environment. I don’t understand it.”
He struggled with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), although he didn’t realize it for years. When he returned to Edmonton from his last overseas posting he would moonlight in the emergency department of a civilian hospital when his military shift was finished. He was hardly sleeping, and he would lose patience at simple things. He dissociated from his young children and wife.
“I got really good about putting things away in boxes, compartmentalizing,” he said of his experiences in the field hospital. “Sooner or later you’ve got to take it off the shelf and deal with it, and I didn’t…eventually my shelf collapsed.”
The day his superiors told him that he was not eligible for a dream posting to Germany due to mental health issues was the darkest day in his journey with PTSD.
“Up until that moment, I was a company guy. Now I’m broken,” he said, recalling that day. “If I’m not deployable, I’m not employable.”
In June 2010 life spiraled for Shaun, and he attempted suicide. He ended up in a locked psychiatric facility, then was sent to rehab because he had been drunk when he made the attempt.
“I didn’t know if I would get my family back,” he said honestly.
“With a lot of work and patience I was able to win my family back again.”
Standley said he spent a lot of time in therapy for his PTSD. He was medically retired from the army as a captain in 2012 and said it has taken him a long time to realize that PTSD is now a part of who he is.
If he could still serve in the Canadian Forces, he would.
“PTSD is not a linear path by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I don’t believe it will ever go away. It’s a part of me now. I learn to manage. It took a long time for me to accept where I am—this is the new normal.”
Standley’s life changed when he was paired with Duke, a service dog.
Standley got Duke four years ago, a year after the family moved to Port Alberni. Sporting his service dog vest with a few phrases, such as “Do not touch the dog”, “do not feed the dog” and “Chick Magnet”, Duke is a familiar sight around Port Alberni.
Duke is a service dog, not a therapy dog—there is a big difference, Standley said. “There are different levels of training based on the needs of the individual,” he explained. Duke was already trained when he was paired with Standley through Courageous Companions, and Standley had to go through two weeks of initial training and regular re-certification to be able to keep Duke.
“Technically, Duke isn’t my dog, he belongs to the organization,” Standley explains.
When Shaun is at work cooking at Full of Beans Play Café in Uptown Port Alberni, Duke lies on his bed tucked behind the front counter. He is always at Standley’s side.
“What Duke does for me, if I’m having nightmares he’ll wake me up. If I’m in a crowded area, he gives me space. The most important job he does for me is he distracts me,” says Standley. “If I get triggered he takes my attention. He breaks my ‘fight or flight.’”
Standley’s trigger is seeing someone, especially women or children, in a threatening situation. He admits he is also quick to be impatient whenever he is in a crowded place such as a grocery store, but Duke helps calm his nerves.
“Having Duke has been a life saver,” he said.
For Shaun’s wife Rebecca, Duke has taken up some of the actions she used to have to deal with, and she says that’s a positive.
“He does things for Shaun that I used to have to do. He will intervene when Shaun is getting upset and I used to have to do that,” she said.
A negative is the attention that Duke attracts: “People maybe left (Shaun) alone a little bit more before he had Duke.”
Shaun has to remind people not to touch or distract Duke, as he has a job to do—he is a working dog, not a pet.
Overall, though, Rebecca said she is glad that Duke has become a member of their family.
“I sleep better at night because Duke is there.”
Are you a veteran who needs to talk to someone who understands what you’re going through, or have questions on how to travel with your service dog? Shaun can be found on Facebook or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.