Joplin Program Connects Service Dogs with Veterans

Article and photos by Savanah Mandeville

Amy Donaldson has been through a lot.

When an injury abruptly ended her career in the Air Force, she didn’t know where to turn.

As luck would have it, she met a veteran with a service dog, and that experience changed her life. She got her strength back, she got back on her feet, and she became determined to use her experience to help other veterans.

In 2014, Donaldson and her husband, Ted, started Compass Quest Joplin Veteran Services, an organization with a wide variety of supportive programs geared toward veterans. She is the director of Thin Red Line K9, a program under Compass Quest that provides service dogs to eligible disabled veterans and raises funds to pay for the dogs’ training.

“It’s about $4,500 to have a dog trained, so it means a lot to us to be able to cover that cost for vets,” she said.

Since starting Thin Red Line K9 on Veteran’s Day 2017, they have connected three veterans with service dogs.

Donaldson herself has benefitted from having service dogs. She is currently on her second dog, a five-month-old German shepherd named Mychal. Her first dog, Jaxx, retired at eight-years-old, the standard retirement age for service dogs.

“I went through a very difficult period of my life where I didn’t think I was going to make it,” she said. “Getting Jaxx as my service dog helped me find myself again, and he helped me to thrive again.”

Donaldson’s career in the Air Force was cut short in April 2007 when she experienced a rapid decompression in the altitude chamber on an airplane that ruptured her sinuses.

“It took me a year and a half and three surgeries to get all that repaired,” she said. “So I couldn’t fly anymore. I couldn’t be pressurized.”

On top of that injury, Donaldson was diagnosed with breast cancer in July 2015, as a result of her time in the service. Walter Reed National Military Medical Center did a study that found that women in the military who are exposed to certain chemicals, who spend a lot of time flying and who have a disrupted circadian rhythm are at a high risk for contracting breast cancer. Donaldson was one of those women.

Between her career ending abruptly and being diagnosed with cancer, Donaldson fell into a deep depression.

“For me and for a lot of veterans, it feels as though everything was great in the military and they praised you for what you did, but then, all of a sudden, it’s over, and it’s hard for us to assimilate on the outside,” she said. “There were times I was just on the edge of sanity. I’m lucky I had my husband to make sure I didn’t go over the edge. That’s why we started Compass Quest Veteran Services. Our hope was we could help at least one other person.”

One day in 2014, she met a veteran who had a service dog. She learned a lot about his experience and how the dog had a positive impact on his life.

“He came into our lives at just the right time. Ted and I started learning about service dogs helping military members, and we both wanted to be able to help veterans access service dogs,” she said. “We knew how much our pets helped us, so we wanted to extend that out to the dog being able to serve others.”

Donaldson’s service dogs have been beneficial to her from a mental health standpoint. She pointed out it’s important for people to understand service dogs are not just a tool for those with physical disabilities but for those suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

A few of Mychal’s skills include “blocking,” where he keeps people out of Donaldson’s personal space, “posting,” where he blocks space behind her, and “deep pressure therapy,” where he leans against her to bring down anxiety levels.

“I remember one specific day that I was able to actually stand up for myself again and put in perspective what my integrity was,” Donaldson said. “I directly relate that to Jaxx standing there next to me. My service dog made me whole again. He brought me back to life.”