It took only the smell of scorched rubber on a drive back from the North Carolina coast to rouse William Reiser's traumatic memories.
The retired Marine Corps lieutenant suffers from chronic post-traumatic stress disorder, which often is triggered by the smell of burning materials. On that day driving down Interstate 40, as he was revisited by images from his time in Afghanistan, the reassuring touch from his golden retriever, Morgan, brought him out of it.
"I was gone for about 10 seconds," he said. "And then she put her head on my shoulder. She kept me in the here and now."
Much like Reiser, retired Marine veteran Tony Mullis' chocolate Labrador, Madison, helps him cope with the nightmares and anxiety that kept him up at night. But unlike Reiser, Mullis relies on Madison to help him stay mobile, after losing both his legs while deployed in Afghanistan.
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The two Marine veterans received their dogs through Paws4Vets, a North Carolina charity that places service dogs with children and veterans who need them. Part of the costs for the dog will be covered by the Moss Creek Marines, a group of Marine veterans from the gated community in greater Bluffton that raises money for Marine causes.
Reiser, of Raleigh, N.C., and Mullis, of Hawkinsville, Ga., met with the members of the Moss Creek Marines for the first time Friday, swapping stories about their tours overseas with the older veterans. After helping active-duty Marines for the past six years, the group switched gears late last year to focus on recent veterans, commander Fred Will said.
HELPING MARINES 'BY THE PALLET LOAD'
The Moss Creek Marines formed as a social club in 2006. The veterans meet once a month and celebrate the Marine Corps' birthday each year, Will said. When a member asked if they'd be interested in helping her son, a helicopter pilot stationed in Iraq, Will and the group jumped to action.
Since 2007, the group has adopted 78 units and 35,000 Marines, sending them countless items. The group has bought coffee urns, Xbox 360 video game consoles for morale tents, 35,000 pillows from Harris Pillow in Beaufort, thousands of combat socks, and personal hygiene items "by the pallet load," Will said.
In total, they have sent $185,000 worth of items to Marines overseas from 2007 to 2013.
But as troop reductions began in Afghanistan in 2013, Will began to look for another way to help service members.
It was a chance encounter with Kyria Henry in Bluffton that paved the way for the group to help veterans connect with service dogs. Henry, the founder of Paws4People and Paws4Vets, was vacationing in the area with her parents. She met Will at a Moss Creek fundraiser and told him about her organization.
When Will found out the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs didn't supply veterans with PTSD service dogs, he contacted Paws4Vets, asking what Moss Creek could do to help.
Paws4Vets asks recipients to try to raise $10,000 to help pay for a dog, which costs about $35,000 to care for and train, the organization's deputy administrative officer, Danielle McPhail, said.
The organization breeds golden retrievers, and employees are involved in the birthing and early care of the dogs. From birth to the final hand-off, training takes about two years. At 6 weeks old, the dogs are taken to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, where they are socialized by mental-health patients, McPhail said.
When they reach 16 weeks, the dogs are taken to one of five prisons in West Virginia, and inmates teach the dogs 110 commands. Reiser and Mullis both met their dogs for the first time in West Virginia.
At a year old, they're taken to the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, where students teach them to respond in public. McPhail started with the organization as a student volunteer in the first class at the school. She trained four dogs, caring for them until handing them over to their new owners.
"It's hard, but it's one of the most fulfilling feelings you'll ever have," she said. "Seeing the pictures and posts on Facebook that the person is able to leave the house today is just an incredible feeling."
'I'D BE IN JAIL RIGHT NOW'
Mullis lost his legs in his second deployment to Afghanistan. He stepped on an improvised explosive device April 6, 2011, a day after his son, Cason, was born. At home, anxiety and nightmares kept him up at night. Psychiatry didn't help, nor did two medications. One kept him awake, and the other caused hallucinations, he said.
When he couldn't find peace of mind, he resorted to sleeping with a pistol under his pillow. Knowing it would only be a matter of time before Cason -- who slept with a hand under his pillow like his father -- would find the gun, he searched the Internet for another solution.
That's where he found Paws4People.
Madison helps Mullis sleep at night, curling up against his body. Many who suffer anxiety and PTSD are hypervigilant, but when the dog doesn't move, Mullis can relax because he knows the room is safe.
Madison is also trained as a mobility dog and can pick up items from the ground when it would hurt Mullis to bend over. When he fell building a chicken pen during the summer, Mullis used Madison as a brace to lift himself and put his prosthetic legs back on.
Reiser suffered from PTSD and severe depression after a traumatic brain injury sustained in Afghanistan in 2011. His traumatic memories predate that injury, stemming from his first days in the country. He, too, suffers from hypervigilance.
Moss Creek Marine veteran Bob Alpaugh said hypervigilance is a common concern among veterans of all ages. Alpaugh said he still instinctively picks a seat in a restaurant against a wall facing the door, a need to feel safe that dates to his service in Vietnam.
Reiser's therapist, who was given a dog by Paws4People, asked if he would be interested in help from Paws4Vets. He was uneasy at first, because of the stigma still associated with PTSD; his initial activities with Morgan were difficult because many people thought he was training her because he didn't have a visible injury.
"With the amount she improved my life, I can deal with a few stares," he said.
Morgan accompanies Reiser to graduate school at Meredith College, something he said he wouldn't be able to do without her. He is sometimes prone to fits of anger, but she calms him.
"She's more in tune to me now," he said. "She can sense it. She does a lot of stuff for me. I can't describe it."
Reiser knows he'd be worse off without Morgan.
"I'd be in jail if I didn't have her. It wouldn't have been intentionally, but I probably would have beaten someone up."
The Marine Corps' birthday banquet by the Moss Creek group offered the first chance for Mullis and Reiser to meet the veterans who will help pay for their dogs. On Saturday, the group presented both men and three others not present with $1,000 each. Two more grant applications could provide the veterans group up to $35,000 that it can put toward service dogs for veterans.
"It's a brotherhood," Will said. "If we can raise money and help these veterans with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries, we'll do that."
At a luncheon Friday, the two young veterans shared stories of their service with the older veterans. Reiser and Mullis said talking to other Marines comes naturally, like talking to old friends.
"I always like meeting Marines," Reiser said. "It's a brotherhood. There's a lot of mutual suffering."
The following events are planned Tuesday for Veterans Day in Beaufort County:
Beaufort -- Parade begins at 9:30 a.m. at Beaufort National Cemetery, followed by 11 a.m. ceremony at the cemetery.Hilton Head Island -- Ceremony at the Shelter Cove Veterans Memorial begins at 10:30 a.m.Sun City Hilton Head -- Ceremony outside Magnolia Hall begins at 10 a.m.