I met Shilo Schluterman and her therapy dog Javie at the Garage Arcade in downtown Russellville. Shilo was hard at work on school papers with plans to graduate from ATU this December. Just a few years ago graduation seemed impossible. Shilo suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), an affliction common to combat veterans.
Shilo enlisted with the Arkansas Air National Guard in April of 1999 and was trained as an airline mechanic. She’s been deployed multiple times, but when Shilo came home from Afghanistan in 2012, something was different. “I did fine while I was there,” says Shilo. “I had some serious things that weren’t addressed, but I didn’t expect them to affect me the way they did.”
The first sign that something was wrong came during a Christmas parade in her hometown of Hartman about a month after she had returned. Her husband and children were marching in the parade while she took care of her nieces. “The sirens came on and something just happened,” she says. “I don’t recall anything from that point on.” Her husband later found her in the bushes, far away from her nieces. “It took him 15 to 20 minutes to convince me we were not in Afghanistan, that we were not dying, that we didn’t need to evacuate everyone from the area,” she says. “I had no idea it was really possible for your brain to do that.” And what scared her even more, she says, was being separated from her nieces without any recollection of what happened. But that was only the beginning, says Shilo. “It went from there to a lot worse.”
From 2012 until 2014, Shilo never left the house without her husband and her children. She never knew exactly when a panic attack would happen, so eventually Shilo rarely left the house and carried a gun when she did. She didn’t even go to church, which was and still is a huge part of her life. Shilo recalls the deep pain of knowing that her illness was taking over the entire family. She encouraged her husband and children to go on with their lives but recognized that it was consuming everything. “They stopped engaging in life,” says Shilo. “They were probably scared to leave me alone. It’s heartbreaking when you know that this is something happening to you, happening to your whole family.”
Shilo went to therapy every week but nothing improved. Medicines didn’t help. Some days she didn’t think she’d make it. Like many veterans with PTSD, suicide seemed possible even likely. Shilo’s therapist at the Veteran’s Healthcare System suggested a therapy dog. Certain she couldn’t afford and didn’t deserve a dog, she shrugged off the idea. But then she found out about scholarships and waiting lists through the K9 for Warriors program. “This was my last ray of hope,” says Shilo, “and I wasn’t really sure that it would help because nothing ever had.”
Javie’s full name is Javelin. As a certified graduate of the K9s for Warriors program, Javie is trained as a service canine for veterans suffering from traumatic brain injury, trauma, and PTSD. Javie was a stray, found starving on the side of the road somewhere in South Carolina. But the shelter recognized his potential and recommended him to the K9 program which works with shelters as a primary source for dogs. Like many young dogs entering the program, Javie was first fostered in a volunteer home and then accepted full time into the training academy.
There are medical tests to ensure the dogs’ health and ability to do physically demanding tasks like support human weight for veterans who need assistance with mobility. And then there are the countless hours spent with qualified trainers who teach the dogs how to take care of their people. “Every service dog costs between $20,000 and $30,000 to train,” says Shilo. To make the program accessible, dogs are often sponsored by companies or foundations who then get the honor of naming the dog.
When a dog completes training they are then paired with a waiting veteran. Staff make every effort to create partnerships that are a great fit based on the veteran’s lifestyle, location, family, and diagnosis. The pair then stay onsite for three and a half weeks where they work together with a fellow veteran known as a warrior trainer.
Shilo remembers the first time she met Javie. “You line up and they take us one at a time to meet your dog. And your trainer is at the end of the sidewalk holding the dog and they hand the dog off to you,” she explains. “And I knew they work with 99 percent rescues. So I knew he wasn’t going to be a German shepherd or typical image of a service dog,” she says. “But as I got closer I thought, wow he is really beautiful. And obviously he is really smart or he would have never made it through the program.” By the time she got to him “he was so happy and licking my face as if he somehow knew I was his human. I can’t imagine it being any other dog because he is perfect for me.”
Shilo admits that she was surprised at how accepting Javie was from the beginning. “I expected him to have a harder time leaving the trainers,” she confesses. “But it’s like they [the dogs] know. He took one quick look at the trainer and that was it. Somehow he knew that I was his.”
It took Shilo time to understand and trust Javie’s skills. “How am I going to learn all these commands? How can I go into public with a dog when I can’t do it without one?” She laughs saying she was mostly thinking about being a mom of four and how hard it can be to wrangle young kids in a grocery store. “But with him, you don’t have to wrangle. He always listens.” During the first three weeks of training, the warrior trainers help reintroduce veterans to real life situations, seemingly simple things like going grocery shopping or eating out. During one of her first outings Shilo struggled. “I had an anxiety attack in a restaurant,” she recalls. “ It was embarrassing; it was terrible; it was awful for me. But what it did for me was show me exactly how he was going to be able to help me in that kind of situation. And that it is survivable.” Whereas a human may shut down or become embarrassed in such a situation, a dog goes to work. “There is something amazing about the way a dog loves you and is there for you, solid,” says Shilo.
Shilo says it’s important to note that while bringing Javie home was transformative and healing, it was also difficult. Over the years, her family had become used to never leaving her side. Suddenly she had a new-found freedom and didn’t need constant care. While everyone in the family recognized her dependence wasn’t healthy, it was still hard to break patterns. Trainers prepared Shilo and her family for this shift in roles and she says it’s been freeing to be able to want her family around as opposed to always needing them.
When the vet and dog go home from training, no other family members can interact with the dog for 30 days. While it may seem harsh, the goal of this transition period is to help the dog understand that they are first and foremost accountable to their veteran. After the transition period, the rules become more lax and the dogs can give and receive affections with all family members. Even now Shilo serves as the main provider for Javie. “Rarely does anyone else meet his needs,” says Shilo. “He likes to chase sticks with my grandsons only if I’m there and I’m a part of it.”
These days Javie is a full-fledged member of the family. He’s even developed a special relationship with Shilo’s husband who takes him for walks every morning. But because of his role as a working dog, his bond is first and foremost with Shilo. Navigating this dynamic was difficult at first, she says. “At the training the dogs have to stay attached to you on a leash at all times,” says Shilo. “It’s part of what creates the bond. You are his alpha.”
While we visit, Javie relaxes on the floor, dozing off. Every so often he puts a paw on Shilo’s lap or opens his eyes and assesses the situation, then drifts off to sleep again. Shilo wears a hands-free leash across her body. If she moves out of the chair, Javie is up and at her side within a second. These days, Shilo fully trusts Javie to help stave off the panic attacks that once kept her homebound. “He knows before I do that I’m getting stressed to the point that I might have a flashback or might not distinguish where I am or what’s happening,” says Shilo.
Most of the time no one knows Javie is working, but he can sense when Shilo is entering a dangerous mental space. “If we are walking, I can’t explain what happens in my head, but, for example, he’ll start leaning against me, or if we are walking he might sit or pull, and then it pulls my attention,” says Shilo. “It brings me back to this space.” She knows that if he keeps pawing at her or pulling hard on the leash it’s time to remove herself from the situation. If that’s not possible, she knows to slow down and just focus on him, petting him, touching his face, and just breathing. In many ways he serves as a guidepost, helping her stay in the physical reality of the moment. “If this is a bad situation, he would be pulling me away,” says Shilo. “If he resists me, something is wrong. Before he came along, I existed in constant hyper-awareness, constant fear, so sure that the worst of the worst was fixing to happen.” Existing in that constant state of hyper-vigilance is debilitating and only leads to further attacks. Now she trusts him to read the room. If he’s calm, she can be too. “I may have a flashback, but not like a full-blown panic attack,” says Shilo. “When I do have a flashback, immediately his nose is in my face. I know if there’s a wet nose on my face I can’t be in Afghanistan,” she says. “He gives an argument to my panic.”
Shilo wasted no time in making plans for her future once she returned home with Javie. “I always wanted to go back to school and finish my degree,” she says. She first went to college years ago after obtaining her GED. But as a single parent supporting her family, joining the military seemed the best option. “I wanted an honorable profession,” she says. “I wanted to show my children service before self.” But after her final deployment, going back to school was impossible. Even online classes were too much. With Javie everything has changed. “Even if I have flashbacks during school,” she says, “I can at least get out of the situation in time and have them in a car, in a corner in a bathroom.”
Shilo’s focus in her studies is working with others who struggle with mental health post-deployment. She’ll graduate with a psychology degree next month. Shilo has also become an outspoken supporter of veterans and mental health, tackling her own prejudices in the processes. “This sounds awful,” she tells me. “But I went through this really intense period of hating Muslims.” Shilo says what she witnessed in combat left her with a desire to place blame, and that’s where it went. “I didn’t even realize I was doing it,” she said. She explains that one afternoon when she and her youngest son were in a public place and someone came in who, she said, looked possibly of Arab descent, her son immediately told her he wanted to leave. At this point, she says, she was starting to come back from her PTSD and reengaging with the world. Warning bells went off in her head. “Why would you say that?” she asked. “That’s not who I told you to be; that’s not who you are. That’s not who we are.” Pausing for a moment she acknowledges: “But it is who I was.”
Shilo’s son had associated her struggles with a country, even a religion. She says that moment shocked her to the core. Is that really me, hating a race? Hating a religion? she asked herself. “I don’t want my family to be a part of the problem,” says Shilo. “I want us to be a part of the solution.”
Shilo doesn’t shy away from difficulty or controversy, and she holds dear to her convictions and her faith. She has an unwavering respect for veterans and their struggles even as she wrestles with her own questions about foreign policy. Two of her sons and her husband are both active in the armed forces, and she knows first-hand that talking about her struggles publicly can sometimes be interpreted by others as a disrespect to the veterans for whom she cares so deeply.
“I have so much respect for men and women who serve,” Shilo stresses. But often during her own service she wanted to understand more about the goals or missions. “Information is only given on a need-to-know basis, says Shilo. “And sometimes this can create internal conflict as you wonder, what is the justification for taking a life? When you ask for any kind of reason or when you ask, ‘is this the right thing?’ you’re told you can go to chaplain if you are having issues or go to mental health or if it becomes an issue you can leave. There’s rarely an acknowledgment that people need or want more information.” And she knows first hand that not everyone knows what they’re getting into when they sign up. “Because we’re asking people to kill people,” she says, “just to be clear here.”
Shilo acknowledges that talking about her own concerns and experiences is scary and difficult. It can cause friction or misunderstanding with veterans she seeks to support. “Some people in the military think this is like a conscientious objector stance, and maybe along the lines of me saying what they are doing is not right,” says Shilo. “I’m not saying that. I’m not saying that at all. I just know that, for me, this is what I need to do now. I don’t think everyone is completely aware of what your service entails,” she continues. “And I really don’t ever want my fellow service men and women to think I’m disrespecting the sacrifice they are making. It’s a beautiful thing for a human being to be willing to sacrifice so much knowing so little. And that’s the heart of an American soldier.”
In her work she seeks to help veterans in their own questions, helping them gain access to resources she knows are so desperately needed. She seeks first and foremost to serve people who have been in her shoes. “In speaking to other veterans, I leave my own questions and personal conflict out of these interactions,” says Shilo. “My intention is to listen to what they need and respond according to what their needs and questions are from a perspective of a fellow service member. My mission is to honor all veterans and the sacrifices they and their families and communities have made in the pursuit of freedom and safety for not just our nation but many others.”
Shilo regularly receives emails and phone calls from others who are struggling. Often they reach out privately. “You have to talk about it or you won’t proceed,” says Shilo. “But there is such a stigma about it and especially in the military. It’s scary,” she stresses.
“For men and women, when that’s your source of income, it just adds a whole other element of fear — if I do or say anything I’ll lose my source of income.” She says she listens and assures people they are not alone. She wants to do more than just be a listening ear. “I don’t know how to help,” says Shilo. “I don’t have any way to address it.”
But that’s changing.
After graduation, Shilo plans to work in a service related field, something within the realm of international relations. “I want to work with refugees, families, orphans; I don’t care what race someone is or where they are from,” says Shilo. “I know what it feels like to be completely displaced from my community, my home, everything, everything I knew, and then be told the skills I had they are not transferable. I can identity with what it feels like to be in a traumatic situation and to wonder is there any point to living, because you can’t see any way through this,” she says. “And if I felt like this in this country, with as many opportunities and as many blessings as we have here, how much more desperate would it be for someone who doesn’t have U.S. citizenship?” Shilo wants to help struggling people with whatever that struggle may be. It’s all a part of living out her Christian faith.
“I don’t want to ever rule out the world because they don’t align with my religious beliefs or my skin color,” says Shilo. “I want to always be a source of help and for people to feel like it’s OK to talk about it,” says Shilo. “You don’t have to talk about what happened, but do need to talk to someone about how you’re coping.”
While Shilo talks about her passion for working with others, Javie reaches up and puts his paw in her lap, she pets him, then he settles back in for another nap. I ask about her tattoos. They are all scriptures, reminding her of her faith and an assurance of God’s love and support with another one planned in honor of Javie. She laughs and tells me about how much Javie runs and jumps when he gets to take his vest off — a sign he is no longer on the clock. And she jokes about how the only time she calls him Javelin is when she has to give him the very rare correction. “He knows it’s my mom voice,” she laughs.
Throughout the interview Shilo talks about her family and their support throughout the hard times when it didn’t look like she’d make it. She tells me how her mother credits Javie with helping her win the battled with PTSD. “I feel like he rescued my whole family,” Shilo says.
Shilo reiterates her belief that silence cures nothing. “We have to talk about these kind of things because everyone struggles with something. Holding it in they just feel that much more alone. Everyone just feels isolated in their experience, but you are so not,” she says.
“Before it happened to me I didn’t realize your brain could give you info that wasn’t real,” says Shilo. Now that she’s experienced it first hand, she’s on a mission to be of support to others near and far. “Let’s talk about it so we can get out there. Maybe it won’t be an issue if we just talk about it. And if it is, well, we can do something about it.”
Shilo and Javie will be featured in an upcoming documentary about the K9 for Warriors program called A New Leash On Life, directed by Emmy award winner Nick Nanton. A showing will be held at ATU on Thursday November 1st. You can read more about K9forwarriers online at https://www.k9sforwarriors.org/. Shilo will graduate this December and you can find Javelin by her side wearing his own graduation cap. “He’s sat through all my classes,” she laughs. He deserves this as much as I do.”