WENATCHEE — Life has become calmer, safer and less stressful for Chris Goehner since he paired up with Pelé.
Goehner, 25, a Wenatchee Valley native now attending Central Washington University in Ellensburg, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). It’s something he picked up while serving two tours as a U.S. Navy corpsman attached to a U.S. Marine Corps emergency room unit in Iraq. He worked as a medic in Kuwait and Iraq in 2004 and 2005, before being diagnosed with PTSD and discharged in 2006.
Pelé is his service dog. Since November, the two have become inseparable.
Goehner is one of only 21 Iraq War veterans suffering from PTSD who have been paired with service dogs since the military recently started a new program to try to help soldiers with the disorder. Pelé was trained for the program by an organization called Puppies Behind Bars. The nonprofit organization uses prison inmates to train service dogs in several New York regional prisons. Inmates have trained hundreds of dogs over the past 16 years for explosive detection and other jobs by the military and law enforcement agencies. The organization started raising dogs to be trained to help disabled children, adults and soldiers in 2006. The military began tests in 2008 to see if the dogs could help PTSD victims.
Pelé, a 20-month-old golden retriever/Labrador retriever mix, accompanies Goehner to his classes, when he goes to the store or mall and when he goes out to dinner. Pelé sleeps in his bedroom at night, guarding his rest from haunting nightmares of bomb attacks and shot and blown-up soldiers.
“Pelé is my little Marine. He watches my back,” said Goehner, referring to the Marines who offered him protection when he was working close to the battle zone in Iraq. Since getting Pelé, Goehner said he’s slept better than he has in three years. He’s been able to take a nap for the first time since leaving the military. He can go into a crowded place with less fear that he’s going to be attacked or shot at. He’s not as unnerved by loud noises that remind him of shellfire and isn’t constantly filled with anger and ready for a fight.
Goehner said a friend encouraged him to apply for the program after reading about in the New York Times. He found an online application for Puppies Behind Bars’ “Dog Tag” program and sent it in last September. He was accepted in early November. The program paid all his expenses to fly to New York, train with Pelé’s handlers at Fishkill Correctional Facility for two weeks and tour New York City and West Point Academy.
The dogs offer great benefits for prisoners as well as veterans and others with disabilities, according to many written testimonies by those who have been involved with Puppies Behind Bars. Prisoners have a chance to do something constructive with a loving creature that doesn’t judge them for past errors.
And Goehner can’t say enough about how Pelé has already changed his life.
“A lot of that anger I had has gone away. It had to. You have to use positive re-enforcement with a dog. Anger doesn’t work for him,” he said. Pelé is a calming focus point when Goehner goes out in public places that previously made him nervous. By directing his attention to the dog, he said he can forget about the things he used to worry about. And Pelé does watch his back. It’s one of more than 90 commands the dog has learned. He’ll move in between anyone who tries to come up to his master.
Goehner credits Pelé for vast and quick improvement with his insomnia, for helping him become more stable and responsible. He thinks he’s helped him become more understanding in a recent marriage, although Pelé sometimes gets jealous of his relationship with his wife, Stephanie. And vice versa, Goehner said.
Pelé has also helped him concentrate better at school, where he is majoring in political science and psychology. He plans to look for a job working with veterans after he graduates next spring. He’s already given several talks to veterans on how to readjust to civilian life and improve their lives.
“I’d like to work on veterans issues and find better ways to help vets with PTSD, other disabilities and unemployment. This is one of those ways,” he said, referring to his pairing with Pelé. “It’s something that can help other guys get where they want to be. It’s truly made a difference in my life.”
Rick Steigmeyer: 664-7151