Arizona organization helping veterans cope post-war

It was the annual Christmas event. The time of year for joy and celebrating.

Yet, Joseph Haia felt trapped at the event in the Cardinals Stadium. Thousands of people were surrounding Haia and his wheelchair.

“Too many people around, too many things moving faster than I could,” Haia said. “It was difficult. The thought of not being able to get out of the wheelchair to run away.”

Haia suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. And this event is just one of example that triggers his PTSD.

PTSD is a disorder people develop who have gone through and experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event.

Common victims of PTSD are veterans. But, with a program based out of Phoenix, a man’s best friend is able to lesson those symptoms of PTSD.

Haia served in the Army for 24 years before his retirement. Then he served as a contractor in the Department of Defense for 11 years.

Haia served from Afghanistan to Iraq and the Sinai desert.

“It wasn’t until I got home that I realized that some things weren’t the same,” Haia said.

He originally went to the Veterans Affairs in Phoenix to seek medical assistance. Haia said that instead of burying his traumatic experiences like he wanted, the Veterans Affair sforced him to recall write down his experiences.

That’s when he turned to a Soldier’s Best Friend.

A Soldier’s Best Friend, an Arizona-based non profit, helps match together U.S. military veterans with PTSD or Traumatic Brain Injury with a service dog. Together, the veteran and dog train to build a relationship.

Leslie Bryant works at a Soldier’s Best Friend as a service dog trainer and adoption placement coordinator.

Bryant has observed veterans when they first come into the program. She said they’re usually nervous, sweating and shaking.

Once a veteran comes into A Soldier’s Best Friend, employees find out what could trigger a veteran. Veterans could be uncomfortable in crowds or with people walking up behind them. They start to have anxiety and panic attacks, which increase their heart rate and they will get so nervous that they will have to leave those situations.

Bryant explained that once they find out what triggers veterans, they train the dogs to respond in different scenarios. The dogs learn to come up to the veteran to create space or so the veteran can pet the dog to lower his or her blood pressure.

“We teach those tasks which are what service dogs are required to do almost like teaching a trick to a dog,” Bryant said.

After the first couple of weeks or months of training, the veterans are able to go grocery shopping by themselves or go out to dinner.

“You’ll see it in their faces,” Bryant said. “They walk in the door and they’re standing up proud and tall and they’re comfortable again. Sometimes they don’t even have to tell you. You can just see when they walk down the street or into a store with their dog how much more comfortable they are.”

And that is exactly what happened for Haia.

“I can go out in public now,” Haia said. “I don’t feel threatened. I have a companion that goes with me everywhere and I’m a lot more at ease.”

Of course, there is no one size fit all solution to PTSD according to Dan Newman, a trauma specialist.

“Us humans come in all different sizes and shapes,” Newman said. “Traumas are all different sizes and shapes and our reactions to trauma effect us.”

And a Soldier’s Best Friend is just one example of treatment for PTSD.

But using dogs as a remedy has proved to be effective.

A study conducted by Myra Taylor, Mary Edwards and Julie Ann Pooley proved the positive outcome dogs have on veterans.

The results of the study state that veterans have bonded so closely with their dog, that now the dog is “able to sense their mental anguish and need for reassurance.”

“It’s been a tremendous, tremendous trip that we’ve both gone through and I just can’t imagine life without her right now,” Haia said.

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Liz O’Connell and Ciara Encinas are reporters for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact them at or

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