Joe Nieves, 40, slumped into his living room sofa. His service dog, Jem, a 3-year-old Labrador-golden retriever mix, jumped beside him and rested her head on his thigh. He started petting her and ran his hands over her ears.
“I mean, look at her. She doesn’t need to be here now,’ he said. “She could be in the bedroom, but she wants to be here and that means a lot to me.”
Jem is a service dog specially trained to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, such as Nieves. Jem is a buffer for Nieves when he feels overwhelmed or disconnected from the world, he said.
The two were linked in March. She has helped him more than he could have imagined, he said.
Nieves, an Army veteran, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and PTSD in 2006.
He also has anxiety from his deployments to Iraq in 2004 and 2005, he said. Like many veterans, he bears invisible scars from what he experienced abroad.
“It’s funny because a lot of the things that haunt people are the things that happened to them,” he said. “And things have happened to me, but the things that haunt me the most are the things I saw happen to the people around me.”
Thanks to Jem, Nieves attended his first event in about five years – Awesome Con, the Washington DC Comic Con convention, in June, which draws tens of thousands of “geek culture” fans.
Jem is trained to perform many tasks to help Nieves. Most helpful, Nieves said, is how she helps him with anxiety in public. For example, she can be a barrier, standing in front of or behind him to keep people from getting too close.
She can enter places before Nieves does, which takes the pressure off him, he said. He is introverted and people turn their attention to Jem instead of him when they enter.
“I think it’s a side effect of the command. For me, that’s really good, because the eyes are not on me, but on her… and that’s really refreshing,” he said.
A lot has happened to Nieves during his broadcast. To this day, one event stands out.
One night, Nieves was watching a checkpoint at his base in Iraq and a mortar hit a building 100 yards from where he was standing. Six or seven soldiers slept in, he said. The roof of the building exploded in a metal shroud.
“It was like slow motion, like in the movies. It’s just pure, slow motion. … It’s like the 100 yards just shot forward, and it’s just in my eyes and in my face,” he said.
He heard the mortars before they struck. In that moment, he said, he knew what terror was. He didn’t know whether to move or stay where he was so as not to get hit.
Fortunately, all soldiers survived with minimal injuries, he said. But the possibility of losing his entire team that night haunts him.
He was medically retired from the military in 2012.
Nieves tried many things to deal with anxiety, but they never stuck. His wife, Katharina Nieves, gave him a camera for when he went out with his two daughters.
“The camera had to help me focus through the viewfinder. So I don’t see everything else. I see her and my girls just as I looked through the viewfinder,” Nieves said.
He knew service dogs were an option, but he was discouraged from getting one. It wasn’t until around 2018, when he met an experienced friend’s service dog at Wounded Warrior Project support group meetings, that he felt a new lease of life that a service dog could help him.
In 2019, he put himself on a list for Canine Companions.
Canine Companions has six training centers in the US and spends about $50,000 to raise and train each dog, said John Bentzinger, a public relations and marketing coordinator for the organization.
A veteran goes through an extensive process to get a service dog. Nieves said the organization’s matching process is going well.
The organization chooses multiple dogs that can be paired with a veteran. It didn’t take long for Nieves to realize who his would be. It was love at first pet.
“She was really perfect, the perfect amount of energy,” Nieves said.
Jem has been a game changer outdoors, Nieves said, and has become part of his family. Nieves has another dog, an energetic and attention seeking French bulldog named Nemesis. She’s nice, he said, but Jem cares about something else.
“The love and affection, as I’ve experienced before, but it’s different with her and not in a better way than the other dog in the way that only she can provide,” he said. “I’m eternally grateful…even having someone just lay on the couch with me.”
Follow Clara Niel on Twitter: @clarasniel