In battle with PTSD, dog becomes a soldier's best friend

Columbia's 1st Sgt. Will Roberts, a U.S. Army paratrooper, has been deployed into combat seven times with the elite 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team.

Kosovo. Bosnia. Two deployments to Iraq. Three to Afghanistan.

Each of those deployments involved intense, front-line fighting with Roberts leading some of the nation’s most hardened soldiers: Army Rangers.

“I lived for that war stuff,” said Roberts, 45.

Today, Roberts is one of the estimated 20 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who have been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). And with the Iraq war winding down – the last U.S. troops are leaving that country this month – more and more service members are returning home. Many are returning with injuries, including psychological trauma, and many are in the Midlands.

Roberts’ PTSD was triggered by a particularly nasty roadside bomb attack in a remote valley in Afghanistan.

“I lost a lot of paratroopers,” is all that he will say.

When he got back home, Roberts’ life devolved into a nightmare of headaches and flashbacks, fear and anger. Everyone became a potential enemy. An ambush lurked around every corner. There was no escaping the fear.

One day, in the back of a WalMart Supercenter in Columbia, he became so disoriented that he couldn’t find an exit. He panicked, curling up in the fetal position in the dairy aisle. The police were called. It wasn’t the first time it had happened.

“I was so ashamed,” he said. “I was an airborne ranger, for Pete’s sake. But it just consumed me.”

Roberts is still in the Army, being treated at Fort Jackson’s Warrior Transition Unit. And one of the important facets of this tall, battle-scarred paratrooper’s treatment is an adorable, 55-pound black Labrador retriever named R.C.

“She’s my battle buddy now,” said Roberts, as he lay in the floor of the Spring Valley home that houses Palmetto Animal Assisted Life Services, or PAALS. “The only thing that keeps me going is working with the dog.”

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