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'He saved me from myself': Award-winning canine companion helps Army veteran cope with PTSD

DETROIT LAKES, Minn. – In the years before they met, Frankie and Joe had been down on their luck.

Frankie was homeless and living on the streets when he was taken in by Aldrich veterinarian Bridget King, founder of Pets Abandoned Wanting Support, or PAWS, in 2011.

The 2-year-old dog was severely underweight and bearing scars around his neck from the choke chain that a former owner used to restrain him – scars he still bears, though now hidden beneath a healthy coat of fur.

“He was rescued by some people who were moving from the Twin Cities to Park Rapids,” King said. “They found him on Highway 71 near Sebeka, as they were going back to the Twin Cities to pick up another load of things to move.

“It was late on a Friday, and they were trying to find somebody to take him in. The Humane Society in Wadena was not open, and someone gave them my phone number, so he was brought to my house” in Aldrich.

King fell in love with the dog, a boxer-husky mix with such beautiful blue eyes that she dubbed him Frankie – an homage to Frank Sinatra, the late singer and movie star who was famously nicknamed “Ol’ Blue Eyes.”

Frankie was temporarily housed with foster families in the Aldrich area, all PAWS volunteers. But the program’s goal is to find “forever homes” for the pets they rescue, so when King heard about the Patriot Assistance Dogs program housed by the Lucky Dog Boarding and Training Center in Detroit Lakes, she thought the friendly, outgoing Frankie might be an ideal candidate.

“So our rescue group donated him to the (PAD) program,” King said.

‘My whole world collapsed’

Joe Buzay, an 11-year U.S. Army veteran who served as a military policeman in Korea, Germany, Honduras and Somalia, had been out of the military since 1994 but began experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in 2010.

“I never believed in PTSD, until I got it ... I thought I was going crazy,” Buzay said. “Everything just fell apart. My whole world collapsed.”

Buzay said he went through a course in St. Cloud that teaches people how to live with PTSD, but the lessons didn’t take hold.

“In November of 2010, I took enough pills to drop a Clydesdale ... a little bit of everything,” he said.

Buzay downed about 100 pills, seemingly determined to put an end to the life that had become such a constant source of torment.

“The doctors didn’t think I was going to make it ... my heart stopped twice,” he said.

At one point, doctors told his family that even if he survived, he would likely end up with brain and organ damage, Buzay said.

“But I woke up 10 days later, and everything was working,” he said, at least physically.

The mental and emotional healing would take more time – and the help of a four-legged companion he would meet a few months later.

“I had a real rough summer,” Buzay said. “I was just getting by. Then in the beginning of September (2011), my veterans service officer brought me up here to Detroit Lakes, and Lucky Dog.”

‘I knew he was the one’

Buzay was introduced to the PAD program and its founder and lead trainer, Linda Wiedewitsch. He met three other dogs before he and Frankie laid eyes on each other – and it was a case of love at first sight, Wiedewitsch said.

“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was the one,” Buzay said. “I took him out for a little walk, and when I brought him back inside, he jumped up in my lap and looked back (at Wiedewitsch) with this big … grin.”

Buzay worked with Frankie for a couple of months at Lucky Dog, Wiedewitsch said.

“But I was going to quit. I just couldn’t keep putting him back into the kennel every day,” Buzay said. “Every time, it got harder to leave him.”

Before Buzay could find the words to tell Wiedewitsch he was leaving the program, she decided to ask him if he’d like to take Frankie home.

“For me, it was time for the dogs to be out there with the veterans, and not here with me,” Wiedewitsch said. “Joe’s bond with Frankie just came so fast, and it made no sense to keep him here anymore. So I sent him home with Joe.”

That was on Dec. 6, 2011 – a day Buzay said he will never forget.

“I got him, and my whole world changed,” Buzay said. “I guess he saved me from myself.”

That first night after Buzay brought him home, Frankie woke him up from a nightmare.

“He just laid right on top of my chest, licking my face,” Buzay said. “He wouldn’t let me get up until I calmed down.”

Companion Dog of the Year

Though Buzay’s panic attacks don’t come nearly as often as they used to, “Frankie knows I’m going to have a panic attack before I do,” he said. “He’ll get up and lick my face, or rub up against me to get my attention. He gets me grounded again.”

King, the veterinarian, recalled that shortly after Frankie went to live with Buzay, she invited him to speak about the program at a PAWS meeting, and how “he couldn’t even look at us in the face.”

Now, because of Frankie, Buzay can stand before a room of 400 people to accept an award on behalf of his four-legged best friend.

This winter, King nominated Frankie for the Companion Dog of the Year award from the Minnesota Veterinary Medical Association. On Feb. 8, Buzay and Frankie made the trip from their home on the Rainy River – between International Falls and Baudette, near the Canadian border – to Minneapolis to accept it.

“He deserves it,” Buzay said. “Before I had him, I basically had nothing. I was going through a divorce, I had no home. … Since then, I’ve gotten a boat, a truck, a four-wheeler – and I’m in the process of buying a house on the Rainy River. He completely changed my life.

“I’ll take him out for walks, and he’s such a striking dog that people will come up and ask questions about him. He’s the best detector of a person’s personality. And the unconditional love they (dogs) give to you, it’s amazing.”

Vicki Gerdes, Forum News Service 

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