“One a Day,” the headline announced, and I was mildly intrigued. One a day, what? Apples? Vitamins? Whatever it was, I was pretty sure I wasn’t meeting the recommendation.
I read on, surprised to learn that the statistic referred not to nutrition but to soldier suicides: Every single day, one U.S. service member dies by suicide. If you include all veterans ― not just those who served in Afghanistan and Iraq ― that number rises to 22 suicides each day — almost one per hour.
The story was graphic and disturbing. You name it, these soldiers had seen it: explosions, severed limbs, dead children, dying friends, and other indescribable horrors. In the end, many of them were left with the “invisible disabilities” of Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They couldn’t escape the pain, mental or physical, and so turned to suicide.
Upsetting stuff, for sure. I finished the article, put it down, and forgot about it.
Or at least I tried to.
But the story haunted me. I took the kids to the beach and heard it in the waves. It followed me as I drove the car, shopped for groceries, and brushed my teeth. I pored over the internet, wondering what was being done to help, and finally stumbled across a website for a faraway nonprofit training service dogs specifically for veterans who suffer from TBI and PTSD. The success stories were inspiring.
Someone should start an organization like that around here, I thought. Better yet, they should use shelter dogs. So many dogs are dying in shelters. Someone should find the smartest, sweetest dogs in the shelters and train them to help veterans with brain injuries and PTSD. That would be great.
Months went by. The haunting continued. And one day, I realized if I wanted it done that badly, I was going to have to do it myself. Which was, of course, impossible.
I wasn’t a veteran. I had never taken a business class, and I certainly didn’t know how to train a dog. Instead, I was a stay-at-home mom, a former journalist, and an aspiring novelist. If you needed someone to tell you the difference between “who” and “whom” or to slice hot dogs into tiny pieces, I was your girl. Starting a nonprofit organization? That was never my dream.
So why had I suddenly entered myself in a local “pitch contest,” proposing this crazy dogs-and-veterans idea to a room full of strangers? The winner would receive $10,000 to start a business. I had no expertise and no evidence that this could ever be anything other than a relatively interesting three-minute pitch. I was pretty sure the judges would laugh me out of the place. Instead, they handed me a check for ten grand as my mouth fell open in shock and terror.
Suddenly I no longer had the luxury of just pondering this grand “someday” idea. Now I had to make this thing a thing. A governmentally recognized thing. After all, you’re not a nonprofit until the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) says you are. And so began my long, less-than-loving relationship with IRS Form 1036-123-ACDC (or something like that) and all of its maddeningly complicated cousins. The paperwork multiplied like mold in the heat. With every new form came a hefty fee payable to the feds, the state, the town, and the third guy from the left at the office down the hall.
“Please hold. Your call is important to us” became the background music of my life. One government call lasted long enough to gestate a baby elephant. And even after the nonprofit incorporation was officially official, the daily-operational red tape continued to spool.
When I wasn’t on hold (or shooing small children away from wall outlets), I had to figure out how to create a website — me, the person who could barely adjust the margins in Word. I also had to learn how to manage money, manage conflict, manage fundraising events, manage social media, and manage not to burst into tears every time the stupid printer ran out of ink, even though I had just replaced it. I constantly worried that I was neglecting my husband and children. At least once a week, I decided to quit.
And then I would change my mind. It’s one thing to read about TBI and PTSD; it’s another thing entirely to see the devastating effects firsthand. One by one, I met the veteran applicants. Some had hearing and vision loss from explosions. Others had trouble balancing. Knee injuries and back injuries were common, as were broken relationships, fear of open spaces, depression, hyper-vigilance, and unrelenting nightmares. One had survived a hostage situation; another had watched several buddies die. These men and women were exhausted, sad, and desperate.
I needed more than a website — I needed a miracle worker. Luckily, I found a whole bunch.
As word spread, people showed up. So many wonderful people. Some, like me, had no experience in the field but wanted to somehow help. Others were dog trainers, doctors, businesspeople, accountants, police officers, nonprofit advisors, and a few professions I had never even heard of. Volunteers of every make and model used their individual talents to slowly turn this idea into something real. We called it Operation Delta Dog because Delta means change. And then we realized that we should have called it Operation Sled Dog because right from the start, we felt like we were pulling a heavy load straight up an iceberg.
The IRS approved our application but assigned us the wrong name — twice. One of the first Delta Dogs was diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, so I drained the already slim bank account to pay for the expensive treatments. (Yes, he was fine, and yes, he was worth it.) Starting again from zero, we begged at farmers’ markets, sold T-shirts, organized bingo fundraisers, and all but stood on our heads in the hot sun and winter winds. One of my earliest outreach efforts was a Memorial Day concert attended by hundreds of people. I collected a grand total of five dollars in the donation jar — and then someone stole it when I left to use the bathroom.
And always, there was convincing to do. Again and again, I had to explain the idea to doctors, social workers, veterinarians, reporters, potential donors, and anyone else who asked, “You’re doing what, now?”
“This will work,” I assured them all, not having any blessed idea if it would work or not.
I even dragged a whole gaggle of us down to Washington, D.C., convinced that a booth at a massive national expo would be our big break. It wasn’t. Instead, it was more like what you’d expect: A frantic 880-mile trip with three dogs, two children, and four overworked volunteers. It was, as they say, an experience. We had a lot of those.
Small ones, like mangled speeches, surly strangers, technology hurdles, and rejected applications.
Big ones, like town-meeting kerfuffles, layoffs, and tragic losses of dogs and people we loved.
And COVID. Let’s not forget COVID.
Still, somehow, the sled kept right on sliding.
This year, as the calendar ticked around to New Year’s Day 2023, I realized with a start that Operation Delta Dog had survived for 10 whole years. It was an anniversary I had never planned for or expected. Somewhere along the way, my “this will work” bluff has improbably become an honest-to-goodness statement: “This is working!” You can see it on every face. The veterans tell us they feel less alone, less afraid and less angry. More like their “old selves.” They like that the Delta Dogs are all rescues because they relate to the animals’ struggles. As one veteran put it, “I think we’re saving each other.”
Since the organization’s inception, Operation Delta Dog’s stellar, tireless staffers have placed more than 60 rescued dogs with disabled United States veterans. The trainers not only train the dogs but also find and evaluate them in the shelters. They teach our clever canines how to flip light switches, retrieve dropped items, comfort during nightmares, aid with balance and dizziness, provide a barrier in crowds, and help with anything else the veterans might need. Case by case, our staff solves problems ― dog problems and people problems. And they all do it for far less money than they deserve.
We try to get a new dog started in training every six weeks or so when funding allows. As new veterans join the program, they take a spot on the waiting list and await the “matchmaking” process. Not every dog fits in with every veteran’s situation, and so the trainers do their best to accommodate each individual need. Usually, though, it’s love at first sight. I’d say the matchmaking day is my favorite part of the process, but that’s not entirely true: Graduation Day will always be the best day of my year.
Neither day, though, comes as frequently as I’d like. Because we have a small staff, a small facility, and a small budget, things move slowly. We’d rather do it right than do it fast, of course, but we’d also like to get more veterans into the program more quickly. Volunteers, meanwhile, continue to provide the bedrock for everything we do. That, and pure, stubborn persistence.
Ten years ago, I could have never imagined the ways in which one random headline would alter my trajectory. Sometimes, people ask me what I’ve “learned” from this experience. Usually, I jokingly answer that I’ve been too busy to learn much of anything. But now, as we mark the passing of a decade, I think I might finally have an answer.
I’ve learned that it’s hard, really hard, to travel outside of your comfort zone — but you should still book that one-way ticket whenever possible. I’ve learned I’ll never have all the answers — but that doesn’t mean I should stop asking questions. I’ve learned that I’m capable of more than I thought I was capable of — but I’m not good at everything I want to be good at. And that’s all right because none of us are. That’s why we have each other.
I’ve learned that dreams can change and grow. That adversity really does sharpen the blade into something fierce. And after all this, there’s really only one thing I know for sure: If we’ve managed to prevent even a single veteran suicide in this past decade of trial, error, and wonderful discovery, it will all have been worth it. “One a Day” is too many. These men and women deserve better, and some things can’t wait.
For more information, please visit OperationDeltaDog.org.
T.M. Blanchet is the author of “Herrick’s End” and “Herrick’s Lie,” Books 1 and 2 of “The Neath Trilogy.” Book 3, “Herrick’s Key,” is due out from Tiny Fox Press in 2024. She’s also a producer for and the host of “A Mighty Blaze Podcast” and the founder of Operation Delta Dog: Service Dogs for Veterans.