Taking action on the values represented in the ITE poem is at the core of the ITE/MH Campaign, and to me it seems like the process of recovery usually starts with feeling connected…to another person, or in the case of Kate Longest, to an incredible dog named Rocky.
I met Kate when she and I were attending the two week Certified Peer Specialist training in Pennsylvania. Her story was inspiring – this young woman who had experienced too much trauma in her young life, yet found her personal empowerment and the strength to not only move forward her own recovery, but to help others in their recovery as well.
Kate is a veteran of the United States Air Force, having served 4 years, with short tours in the Middle East. Understandably, Kate is reluctant to focus on the causes of the trauma that led to her having intense symptoms related to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but she is filled with hope and excitement when she talks about where her current journey began, with a 5- week- old German Shepherd pup named Rocky. Kate said she always wanted a German Shepherd dog growing up, but her parents said they were aggressive and wouldn’t let her have one. So when she met this pup in Colorado Springs, Colorado in her third year in the service, and learned that he could be hers for the price of a case of beer, the deal was done. Little did she know what a great deal that would be for a dog that would change her life forever.
During her remaining year in the service, Rocky and Kate came to know and trust each other, although it wasn’t always easy. Rocky was, after all, a big puppy, and Kate was dealing with her own challenges. But they learned from each other – Rocky learned what it was like to be loved and taken care of, and Kate gained a lot of patience and found the non-judgmental comfort of a dog that was always happy to see her when she came home. As Rocky and Kate’s relationship grew, Kate began noticing things in Rocky’s behavior. He wouldn’t leave her side. He would wake her from nightmares and alert her to anxiety she was experiencing even before she noticed. Their bond grew stronger.
When she was discharged and returned home to Virginia, Kate’s anxiety and other PTSD related symptoms accelerated. She had little support for the distress she was suffering, had a baby daughter and felt overwhelmed and hopeless. For a moment, Kate saw suicide as an option to end the pain. She talks about how it took a serious flashback while shopping with her daughter to compel her to take action and become her own self-advocate.
By this time, Kate realized that Rocky was her main support, and was helping her in many ways. In addition to waking her from nightmares, Rocky helped her identify triggers; he’d remind her to take her medication. When in public, he established boundaries that helped Kate feel safer. Kate began researching how dogs can support people dealing with psychiatric symptoms and trained Rocky to offer sixteen specific tasks to support her recovery. She began connecting with others and building a network on her Facebook page— trainers, other dog owners, rescues and shelters. But it wasn’t until Rocky’s death, July 8, 2014, that Kate realized what Rocky and her story meant to others—that he had become a Mascot of Hope for so many.
In March, 2013, Kate formally launched Rescue to Service Dogs for Vets. Focusing on German Shepherd mixes, she identified volunteers throughout the country who seek out potential dogs at shelters and rescues for placement, evaluating them for their willingness to work, their drive to learn and please. Transporters were identified, who would bring dogs from the rescues, at first to Kate and other trainers in her program who would work with the dogs and place them, but eventually directly to other veterans in need of canine emotional support and companionship or full out service dog. She works with the veterans, helping them understand the importance of initial bonding with the dog, and then the work that it takes for both them and the dog to create a successful relationship. Training starts alongside the veteran one to two weeks after the veteran is connected with the dog.
In eight months, Rescue to Service Dogs for Vets placed 12 dogs with veterans, 2 with spouses in need of emotional support, and 1 with an active duty spouse in need of a service dog – eight in Virginia and seven in other states. Her network grows, or as she likes to call it, the “village” of people that put their time and effort into connecting veterans and dogs, to bring new life to their recovery process.
Kate McKeon Longest is the Evidence, a young woman who acts on the values of the Campaign every day of her life. And the Rocky’s of the world…amazing creatures who are able to make a healing connection on so many levels in the lives of veterans they are placed with, and help support their journey’s towards endless possibilities.
Kate McKeon Longest is currently writing a proposal to offer a service dog recovery program for a Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Virginia, in addition to continuing her work with Rescue to Service Dogs for Vets. Her current companion, Houdini, is a one- year- old German Shepherd, rescued out of New Hampshire. Learn more about Rescue to Service Dogs for Vets by visiting Kate’s Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/kate.mckeon.3?fref=ts