In the field, a battle buddy helps keep his fellow soldier safe, looking out for dangers and lending a hand in any way possible. But when veterans return home, sometimes carrying scars from things they may have experienced in combat, they are often left to assimilate back into civilian life without the watchful eye that kept them safe abroad.
Pedro Santiago, a former Marine deployed in the early 1990s on a peacekeeping mission to Somalia, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder related to what he witnessed in the east African nation. In the decades since, the Eddyville man has found it more difficult to tamp down the memories and feelings associated with what he experienced as a machine gunner.
"I used to be the person who could say, 'Nope, I'm not going to let this bother me,'" he said of the anxieties and thoughts that became more and more prevalent.
Enter Lincoln, trained and pledged to devote his keen senses and uncanny awareness to helping Santiago navigate every-day life. And all for little more than a pat on the head and a crunchy treat.
Lincoln is a service animal, a PTSD dog awarded to Santiago by American Legion Post 68 in Lyon County. The 2-year-old German shepherd is the fifth service dog donated by the local organization to struggling veterans. He was trained at Wren's Pet Lodge in Draffenville, where Santiago took delivery of the black and tawny canine on Nov. 6.
"I had some anxieties this morning, but I feel a lot better already," Santiago, 45, said as he walked Lincoln through a number of commands, rewarding him with chicken-flavored snacks and praise.
Born in Puerto Rico, Santiago graduated high school in Pennsylvania and at only 18 was in Somalia as a Marine. Though he has sought help for his PTSD through the Veterans Administration with therapy and medication, Santiago has turned to a dog as his best hope.
Lincoln's trainer, Stephanie Tucker, said PTSD dogs help veterans in a number of ways.
The dog acts as a buffer between Santiago and strangers and alerts the man to people who may be perceived as sneaking up on him, a common concern among veterans of conflict.
Joe Merimee, chairman of Post 68's PTSD dog committee, said many veterans sit in public with their backs against the wall or refuse to walk down the aisle of a store over anxieties about being ambushed.
And when Santiago begins to feel anxious or threatened, Lincoln picks up on the change in his demeanor. He may throw a paw into Santiago's lap or offer some type of physical reassurance to calm him. The dog also serves as an alarm clock should Santiago get down and linger too long in bed. Additionally, Lincoln is a built-in fitness trainer who needs regular walks to expend his canine energy, something that will act as motivation for Santiago in his ongoing, seven-year battle with multiple sclerosis.
"It gets them outdoors; they have something to take care of," Tucker said.
The comfort Lincoln brings the ex-Marine was evident in their interactions on the day they departed Wren's Pet Lodge together.
Despite being trained as a service animal with a working mindset, Lincoln is still man's best friend, offering licks to Santiago's face as the two bonded on a couch inside the training facility.
But Lincoln instinctively knows when it is time to clock in as a service animal.
A vest typically worn by service dogs, primarily to alert the public that he is not to be treated a common pet, puts the German shepherd into work mode. In places like a restaurant, you may not even notice the dog, as he is trained to lie at his owner's feet, concealed from view.
Merimee, who served in the Air Force during the first half of the 1960s, said a $12,000 grant from the Kentucky Department of Veterans Affairs was used to pay for Lincoln's training as well as that of two other dogs, all schooled by experienced handlers at Wren's Pet Lodge.
Training the animals nearby is important to the program, particularly since any veteran paired with a dog is required to interact throughout the process.
"We wanted to get dogs for guys in this area who wouldn't have to travel far," Merimee said.
Santiago, who passes near Draffenville regularly on his commute to work at Mayfield Youth Development Center, stopped by an average of once a week since Lincoln's training began in July. Between Santiago's visits to work with Lincoln, Tucker has exposed the dog to public settings similar to how he may be utilized by the veteran.
"Pedro's done all he can," said Tucker, adding that Santiago had his share of instruction along the way, too. "It's a big commitment to continue training."
Tucker has spent a lot of time with Lincoln since starting his training over the summer. Merimee said training typically takes a year before the animal is ready to begin its service, but Lincoln came to the program already disciplined by his previous owner, a local police officer who donated the dog for the program.
"Finding one who wants to do the job can be difficult," Merimee said of the animals.
Dogs to be considered for the program are vetted for health and temperament, and are generally under 2 years of age when training starts in order to offer longevity for their life as a service animal. Working breeds like Labradors, collies and, of course, shepherds make ideal candidates, Merimee said.
But it is not just the animal that is put through a rigorous selection process. Veterans seeking at PTSD dog must apply, interview, undergo a check into their personal life and sign a commitment to care for the animal.
"I was a nervous wreck," Santiago, a member of Post 68, said of his interview with the committee. "But every single person made me feel at home."
Tucker said Lincoln should have only a short transition period, leaving her daily company for Santiago's home, where he lives with his wife Tina, children and two other dogs. But she expects Lincoln will do just fine.
"It'll be me who struggles," she said. "That relationship never stops."
And a week into sharing a roof with Santiago and his family, Lincoln was doing just fine.
"He is getting settled in good at home, especially with my other dogs," Santiago said last Wednesday. "He has already made a huge difference. Lincoln has been the best thing that has helped my PTSD and anxiety."
Lee Ann Lasher, who serves on the local American Legion Post's PTSD dog committee, said grants like the one that funded Lincoln are difficult to get. Though the post has enough of its own money to award another service animal, they would like to continue the program indefinitely. It has several fundraisers throughout the year for this and its other works to help veterans.
"But we would like to see donations so we can put that money toward yet another dog," she said.