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COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Scott Widmayer calls Ranger his "fur child."
The Coeur d'Alene veteran credits the dog, a Korean Jindo, with saving his life.
Widmayer was deployed three times while serving in the Marine Corps, the last two during the battles of Fallujah in Iraq.
Those experiences left Widmayer with post-traumatic stress disorder. He attempted suicide three times.
"I drank heavily and my life was a downward spiral," the 30-year-old North Idaho College student said. "I was a zombie with the anti-depressants; they made me feel horrible."
Then, while working as a contractor for the Department of Defense in Korea in 2010, Widmayer crossed paths with Ranger. It was a moment, Widmayer said, that saved his life, and the dog's as well.
"I was at a restaurant and he was in the back in a cage," said Widmayer.
Ranger, 2 months old at the time, was slated to be killed for food. Widmayer purchased the animal.
"It was the best $28 that I've ever spent. He's been all over the world with me," he said.
Widmayer said he purchased Ranger simply as a companion, not with visions of training him to be an emotional support animal to help him deal with his PTSD.
But, the more the two hung out together, the more it became apparent to Widmayer that Ranger was a reason the veteran was gradually overcoming the "demons of combat" and suicidal thoughts.
"He's helped me through some very, very dark times," Widmayer said. "He can sense when I'm down. He's been instrumental in my well being. I can't tell you how many times he's really helped me."
Widmayer credits the companionship with helping him turn his life around and discover a passion to help other veterans who are battling stress.
Widmayer, a sophomore at NIC, is majoring in social work. Next year he plans to transfer to Lewis-Clark State College to pursue a bachelor's degree in the field.
"Ranger is the reason I'm now in a position to help others," Widmayer said.
Widmayer assists staff at the NIC veterans office with programs, trains dogs for vets and has vets over to his place for gatherings.
"PTSD is an epidemic," he said of his desire to assist vets.
One in five military members who have returned from Iraq or Afghanistan report symptoms of PTSD or major depression, but more than half have sought treatment, according to a study by the nonprofit RAND Corporation.
Widmayer has tattoos on an arm of the names of 31 of his Marine brothers who died in combat. He also has one with the date Jan. 26, 2005, when 27 members of his company were killed in action.
"After I lost my best friends, I came back from the war very angry," Widmayer said. "Anniversaries are very hard."
Widmayer said he's aware of 34 Marines he served with who have committed suicide.
He still has nightmares from the trauma and can't stand to have his back to a door, but Ranger at his side helps.
"He wakes me up when I have flashbacks," Widmayer said. "He also helps pull me up stairs because my knees are shot."
Local author Anna Goodwin, who worked as a psychotherapist, addresses military PTSD in her book "How to Cope with Stress after Trauma: Especially for Veterans, Their Familes and Friends." She was inspired to write the book because her late father was traumatized by war. He tried to hide his emotions.
"What troubled me the most was that he never received the help he needed," she wrote. "Thus he never recovered."
Part of the healing process with stress after trauma comes with recognizing what makes you relax, Goodwin wrote.
Ranger, Widmayer said, helps give him a sense of comfort.
"In those dark times, or when a friend commits suicide, Ranger picks up on those things and comes up to me to cuddle," Widmayer said.
Goodwin wrote that animals, especially dogs, can be that companion you can trust and talk to.
"Regardless of what you say to an animal, it will love you and accept you," Goodwin wrote. "Regardless of what secrets you will tell it, you will bond with each other. Bonding with an animal is a very important step that has even helped people decide not to end their lives."
Ranger, a certified emotional support animal, accompanies Widmayer to class and is a mascot at NIC's veterans office.
"A lot of the veterans can't have dogs because of their living situations," Widmayer said. "So, when I bring him, they go crazy. If he's not with me, they wonder where he's at. Ranger lightens everybody's mood."
Service dogs to assist veterans appears to be on the rise, said Doug Sams, NIC student advisor for veterans. He said four vets with service dogs have been visiting his office for support this school year.
"Dogs are sensitive," Sams said. "They can tell your mood just from your facial expression. You're not going to get that with a machine, plus you have a friend. They've been huge for our veterans community."
Widmayer said service dogs such as Ranger bring to the recovery table what medicine can't.
"They don't judge you and they're overjoyed to see you come back," he said. "Ranger has given me a sense of responsibility. He's my fur child. We take care of each other."