BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - An LSU student veteran is on a unique mission to help save lives. Sgt. Nick Trapani wants to connect combat veterans with service dogs, and the inspiration came through his own personal struggle.
Diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Trapani quickly realized the traditional treatment was not working.
"The first step is asking for help when you know you need help, and I realized I needed help because I was on anti-depressants and I didn't like it. I wasn't myself. I just couldn't function normally," Trapani said.
Getting nowhere with his request for a service dog from the Veterans Administration, Trapani took his search for a dog to the internet, starting a fund to help himself and others like him get the help they need. As a student living off the GI Bill, Trapani said he couldn't afford to buy and train a service dog. But after only one month of fundraising, he was able to purchase a Doberman Pinscher he named Gunner.
"The dog is just like having security on the battlefield. Right now I'm his protector, I'm his everything, but as he grows up that's going to transition to where he has my back more, and that'll probably decrease anxiety," he said.
As a United States Marine Trapani served in the Middle East for three years in the same unit as Sgt. (Ret.) Juan Valdez. On November 3, 2006 in Karma, Iraq Valdez was shot through his arm and right side. He credits much of his recovery to his service dog.
"In essence Midas saved my life, and I started sharing that kind of positive energy that he gave off with everyone around me when I was going to my PTSD groups and stuff like that, and two friends of mine told me that they didn't commit suicide because of him," Valdez said in a Skype interview from New York.
The VA estimates 22 veterans take their own lives every day, so when another of Valdez's friends was suffering, he and Trapani donated funds for his service dog.
"To me it was a no-brainer," Valdez said. "He needs some help and we're all brothers in arms, so we never leave each other behind, or we never do anything alone."
Retired USMC Corporal Jay Thibodeaux is another of Trapani's brothers in arms. The first step in his service dog training was also funded through Nick's efforts.
"It's always good to have people like Nick there to help you out, and it's dramatically helped me out. I wouldn't be where I'm at right now if it wasn't for Nick helping out with all he has," Thibodeaux said.
Back from deployment for less than a year, Thibodeaux already sees a difference in himself since getting Julie – his Bluetick Coonhound – in February.
"It's just camaraderie with them. I've grown with Julie, and she's grown with me. We've definitely bonded," he said.
Trapani's project is in its early stages. Of his initial goal of $4,000, he's now raised $1,680. But he says the mission is more important than the money.
"That's what I want to promote: being yourself, and overcoming the stresses from combat. But you don't need medication to do that," he said.