On August 24th, 2003, Justin Morseth returned from Iraq with the 3rd ID out of Georgia. As an Infantry Captain and Bradley Platoon Leader, Justin was on the “front lines” during the Invasion. As such, what he witnessed and experienced was often excruciating and brutal.
He weathered the war without injury and with the honor of two Bronze Stars, one with Combat Valor, a notable distinction. It seemed that he had somehow miraculously escaped the worst consequences of battle. But it didn’t take long for the invisible wounds to start surfacing – a knife carried to the bathroom at night, a desperate anxiety in traffic, a genuine distrust of strangers.
Returning to Civilian Life
At the time of his return, Behavioral Health at Ft. Stewart was overwhelmed. Though efforts were made to seek help, the waiting lists were long. One night, Justin awoke still in the grips of a nightmare. Frantic and barely able to breathe, their dog, a rescued Husky named Samson, crawled up on Justin’s chest. Whether it was the fur-to-skin, or Samson’s rhythmic breathing, it broke through the fear and eased Justin back to reality: he was safe at home.
Justin was Honorably Discharged soon thereafter. Life as a civilian was a tough transition. But runs with Samson, and his heavy weight at the end of the bed offered a calming constant. Samson and Justin were battle buddies of a different kind. Rather than looking out for the dangers of unexpected attack, Samson kept watch for sudden panic and always helped Justin dodge the proverbial accompanying bullet.
The War at Home
In 2006, Justin and his wife Megan had a son Sander. While most first-time fathers feel joy in holding their child, Justin was tortured with a memory that had managed to hide itself for years. In an instant, he was transported back to one of his worst days in Iraq, and with no Samson nearby to offer reprieve, a flip switched. No one knew right away…but when Justin moved to Indiana not long after, leaving his family (and Samson) behind to sell the house, that memory and so many others, boiled fiercely to the surface.
Numerous attempts at help either went unanswered, or Justin was simply offered a cursory appointment and a quickly written prescription. His job in the trauma field offered just enough adrenaline to tap into the part of his brain that still functioned precisely and systematically, so perhaps that gave the erroneous impression that all was well.
In fact, it wasn’t until a near-tragic turn of events that Justin finally received the adequate and intensive help needed. It was no surprise to learn Justin had PTSD. What was a shock, seven years after his return from Iraq, was his diagnosis of TBI (Traumatic Brain Injury). He was also told that his damaged brain didn’t function well with psychiatric medication, and that such a thing isn’t uncommon with TBI or PTSD.
He’d been given seven different medications in as many years for anxiety, sleep issues and depression. The side effects were much of the reason for his worsening PTSD.
At the old age of 14, Samson passed away. Gratefully, Justin had been off his medications long enough for his disorientated brain to begin to follow a steady course. And his new, intensive therapy was breaking through the chaos of his PTSD.
None-the-less, the loss was tough, and it definitely hit hard. While Justin was no-doubt stable, so much was still missing: his easy laugh, his sense of humor, true joy. Samson had certainly helped save Justin’s life. But there was work still to do. Everyone was devastated.
A Hope to Live Again
In leapt Lucy, a 9-week old Lab/Mastiff mix. Adopted from Luv-A-Dog Rescue out of Indianapolis, Lucy was a ball of sweet energy. Absolutely everything was a wonder to her. The puff of a Dandelion elicited absolute bliss. The running legs of Justin’s now 5-year-old son, and two-year-old daughter sent her into a relentless chase. The bounce of a Kong toy practically made her apoplectic.
In short: she never stopped moving. And in her goofy tumbles down the stair to the patio, and her barking like mad at her reflection, Justin started to notice the humor in life, too.
Along side her end-of-the day worn-out and snoring body, Justin found a peaceful place to fall asleep. And as the months passed, teaching and training her cemented a connection between the two of them that is unmistakable.
Lucy follows him everywhere when he is home. She crisscrosses the yard right beside him when he mows. And she pushes her soft head under his hand when she senses even small spikes of anxiety.
Samson kept Justin afloat when he was so close to sinking. Lucy came in to push away all the debris once the storm had passed. They are each brave and heroic in their own right. No doubt, the rescue went both ways.
Paying It Forward
Megan saw the healing power of pets to comfort, connect and pull someone back from the edge first-hand. She contacted over 50 animal welfare organizations throughout Indiana to see if one would be interested in establishing a program to support veterans like Justin in need of an emotional support animal. Only one organization responded to Megan…and the rest is history.