Veteran John Welch spent decades of his life assuming that suicidal thoughts, depression and anger issues were simply something he had to live with — but today he knows better.
Welch, who lives in Commack, New York, and served in the Marines in the 1980s, thinks of his life in two parts: the man he was before he met his service dog, Onyx, in April, and the man he is now.
Marine veteran John Welch and his service dog, Onyx
"I was an angry guy," Welch, 53, told TODAY. "If you cut me off in your car, I was going to your house. But now I stay in the right lane. I'm like Mr. Magoo."
September marks National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, and statistics related to veterans are particularly troubling. Roughly 20 veterans die by suicide every day, according to the latest research from the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Welch attempted suicide four separate times. To him, those figures are especially heartbreaking.
"They're wounds of war that are far removed from the war," Welch said of suicides among veterans. "It's like a bullet that finally found its mark... but it's self-inflicted."
John Welch served in Beirut in the 1980s.
He shares his own story in hopes that fellow veterans know that help is out there.
"There are answers; there is hope," he said. "But the heaviest weight to lift is the door to the help you need. These Marines... they live in the darkness. They don't want to open that door."
Welch knows that from experience. He served around the world, largely in Central America and Beirut, Lebanon, guarding embassies and working as a defenseman for nuclear, biological or chemical threats. When he returned home, he felt isolated and unable to identify with people, even his own family.
"I watched Marines die," he said. "And really, I wasn't angry that God took them, but that he didn't take me. I almost would have preferred to be in a box with a flag on it. How do I go home, standing on two feet? There's a term for it: survivor's guilt. And it's very common. I have an ongoing feeling of never having done enough. I wasn't afraid to die. The true problem is that I was afraid to live."
"I watched Marines die," Welch said of the trauma he experienced during his service.
Welch has post-traumatic stress disorder. In the past 25 years, he’s tried medications, therapy, PTSD programs, and he’s been admitted to the psychiatric unit at his local VA hospital on several occasions. He's also turned to creative outlets — Welch is a painter and once made a short film about his experience as a Marine.
But it wasn’t until he learned about America's VetDogs, an organization that pairs service animals with veterans in need of physical or emotional support, that he got the help he’d been looking for all along.
“Within a few days of knowing this dog, I found what was missing in my recovery,” Welch said.
Welch said he wouldn't be alive without his dog, Onyx.
Onyx, a black Labrador, wakes Welch up when he has nightmares, and comforts him both at home and outside.
“At any given moment, my brain can go to outer space,” Welch said. “She knows when I’m in that situation. That dog rests her chin on my knee and looks at me with those beautiful brown eyes, and I touch that dog’s head and now I’m back on Earth. I’m in the present.”
VetDogs doesn’t specifically train dogs for suicide prevention or give them out for that purpose, although it does have a PTSD program. Still, Welch insists that he wouldn't be alive if he hadn't met Onyx.