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How my service dog helped me get my power back years after my sexual assault

To: My service dog, Gunner

From: Simone Emmons (As told to Lauren Brill)

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Dear Gunner,

When we first met, you were a rescue dog. I brought you into my home and introduced you to my family. But when you came into my life, you were not the only one who was rescued.

The journey that led me to you started long before we ever connected. When I graduated from high school nearly 20 years ago, I decided to join the military.  When I enlisted, I thought I would be joining all these great men and women who shared my values and love for my country.  I expected camaraderie and hard work.  

Unfortunately, that was far from my experience.

Before I was even done with training, a male soldier, an acquaintance, asked me to hang out while we were off duty.  I thought nothing of it, so I agreed. In an instant, he went from friend to foe. He was stronger than me. I said, “no,” but my body froze. He was attacking me. In the middle of my assault, I fell on the floor, hit my head and passed out. When I came to, he was still on top of me.

When he finished, he started laughing. Flustered and confused, when I got back that night, I got in trouble for breaking curfew. Caught off guard by somebody being so hateful toward me, I didn’t know how to handle the situation. So, I didn’t tell anyone.

My peers realized the person who hurt me also missed curfew that night and they started calling me names, such as “slut” and “trash.” The soldier who attacked me would laugh every time he saw me. Depressed and feeling a lot of pain in my head and body, I started drinking heavily. My drinking led to me getting separated from the military, falling short of the lifelong career I had envisioned. 

Without any money or benefits, I became homeless. Trying to forget what happened to me, I drank more, started doing drugs and got involved with risky behavior. It reached a point where I knew I needed to stop. So, I eventually went through a 12-step abstinence-based program. But when drugs and alcohol were no longer a part of my life, it left me alone with my trauma and emotions.

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It wasn’t until ten years after my time in the military that I confronted my past. By this time, I was married. My husband is a veteran and I thought he had PTSD. I suggested he talk to a professional at the vet center. I didn’t realize I was considered a veteran because I was in the military for such a short time. But, even so, I found out wives of veterans could also seek counseling for free. So, I did. That’s where it all came out. That’s when I finally told someone what happened to me.

The therapist said, “You were raped and you have PTSD. “

I started crying because it was true. Finally, I was relieved of the burden I was carrying for so many years. The counseling at the vet center changed my life.  However, I still had a lot of PTSD symptoms including social anxiety. The alcohol helped me sleep at night and relax around people when I was out.  Without it, I struggled to cope. Often, I would try and go out and I would have panic attacks.

I did a ton of therapies: cognitive therapy and group therapy. I even tried homeopathic methods, such as seeing a chiropractor, medical marijuana and yoga. While they all benefited me in some way, none made me feel completely comfortable going out in public. 

Finally, a professional said “you could try prescription medicine or a service dog.” 

After battling addiction, I didn’t want to take medication. So, I opted to try a service dog.

A veteran’s organization that provided dogs for vets with PTSD accepted me into their program. That’s how you and I came together. At first, I loved you as a pet, but then you became a tool to help me.  You made me feel like I was never alone. It’s always you and me. But more importantly, through you, I learned that I could be in control. I tell you when to sit, or where to go, or what to do. Being in charge of you has made me realize I could have control over my own life.

Also, whether we are going into a store or we are at home, I know you will always have my back and you will always support me – just like I support you and have your back.

Gunner, you became the light that let me see the way to changing my life.

That’s why when I learned that the organization that led me to you would no longer serve sexual violence survivors and focus solely on combat veterans (because of high demand), I had to do something. So, with the help of that organization, I decided to start my own non-profit, providing service dogs to sexual assault survivors and military sexual trauma victims. The organization is called Service Dog Strong. So far, we’ve trained and given away eight dogs and there are another five on their way.

While my healing is a continuous journey, helping other people is guiding me in the right direction. I am no longer constantly in my head, reliving my trauma. Instead, I am focused on fundraising and growing the organization. Positive people surround me and I am a part of an organization that allows me to feel accomplished and worthy.

The people we’ve matched with a dog have found so much peace and healing, just like I do with you. Today, I am married with young children. My life is healthier. My life is fuller and my power is back.

Gunner, I may have once rescued you, but you helped me realize that I could also save myself.

Thank you. I love you, buddy.

Simone Emmons
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