OSHKOSH (NBC 26) – Jorel Wester leads a busy life these days.
Wester, who commutes from Clintonville, works as a tool designer at Oshkosh Defense. He studies engineering and enjoys spending time with his family.
But life wasn’t always bright.
“I didn’t feel like there was a way out for me,” Wester said. “It’s a very dark spot. It’s a very tough spot to survive.”
Wester served in the US Coast Guard for almost 12 years. He was later released after suffering an injury.
The time grew dark.
“I kind of fell into a depression, a pretty deep hole,” Wester said. “I had lost some friends — some Coast Guard friends — to self-harm, to suicide. I kind of saw myself sliding down the same path.”
An average of 20 veterans die by suicide every day.
Wester almost became part of that statistic.
After making a plan to end his life, Wester said he looked for signs to take a different path. This news came from an unexpected place.
“I stopped at Firehouse Subs for a sandwich. When I sat down and ate, they gave me a cup. On the side of the mug was an organization called K9s for Warriors. They provide service dogs for veterans,” Wester said. “I burst into tears. I couldn’t believe this had happened. For me this was what I was looking for.”
Wester said he called the organization and was eventually put on a waiting list. During that time he went to the VA and was treated for PTSD.
Two years later, Wester received the help he had been waiting for from a black lab named Betsy.
Meet Jorel Wester and his service dog, Betsy. Jorel is a US Coast Guard veteran who struggled with post-service mental health issues. He said Betsy and a group called @k9sforwarriors pulled him from a dark place and saved his life. More about his story @NBC26 at 6. pic.twitter.com/tjAwTmDtIw
— Kelsey Dickeson (@KelseyDickeson) August 18, 2022
“When I start to feel stressed, when I start having issues with TBI and processing, it distracts people, gives me some time, and makes me feel more comfortable,” Wester said.
The mother of an Iraq War veteran founded K9s for Warriors in 2011 after seeing how much her son’s dog was helping him cope. Since then, the charity has matched service dogs with 755 veterans struggling with PTSD, military sexual trauma or traumatic brain injury.
“When you see that dog on day one, something happens,” said Carl Cricco, chief marketing and development officer at K9s for Warriors. “You can see the veteran is starting to see things a little differently. There’s a bit of hope that starts, and it grows and grows with the time they are here and when they go. It’s something – I can’t even put it into words. There is something inherent in this bond between dog and human that makes this possible.
The service dogs used in the program are rescue dogs from shelters with a high kill rate. Veterans train with their comrades for several weeks.
Cricco said her waiting list has grown dramatically over the past three years, increasing to a five-year wait. He said the COVID-19 pandemic likely played a role in that.
“COVID was a time of isolation. Isolation is a really bad thing for people with severe PTSD,” Cricco said. “So we have veterans who are dying to get their dogs and come onto campus and get the help that they need.”
K9s for Warriors added a “mega kennel” at their Florida facility to reduce the waiting list. Cricco said the kennel can accommodate up to 150 dogs.
Wester spent his life rescuing those lost at sea. Now Betsy and K9s for Warriors save him.
“I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for them. If it wasn’t for her,” Wester said.
Individuals interested in obtaining a service dog from K9s for Warriors can do so fill out an application online.
Anyone struggling with their mental health can call the National Suicide Crisis Lifeline on 988. Help is available 24/7.