Soon after Tim Kellermann returned from a 13-month deployment in Afghanistan, he realized he wouldn’t be able to brush off what he had experienced while stationed in the Korengal Valley – a place dubbed the “Valley of Death” for being one of the most dangerous stretches of terrain in the world for U.S. forces.
“I was just having these moments, like thinking about people with their legs blown off and watching people getting taken out in a helicopter,” said Kellermann, who turned 21 shortly after arriving in Afghanistan. “I mean, I’ve watched young kids absolutely shot up.”
In 2009, a year after he came home, Kellermann was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. He grappled with flashbacks and intense panic attacks and found he couldn’t walk down the street without thinking about getting shot. Some days, he struggled to leave his house.
Then, about two years ago, his psychiatrist at Lebanon Veterans Affairs Medical Center told him about Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization in Florida that trains service dogs and donates them to veterans and others suffering from disabilities like PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
“At first, I was a little sketched,” Kellermann said. “I was like, what is this lady talking about?”
But he agreed to apply for a dog. Five months later, he flew down to Florida to meet Pilot, the German shepherd he had been paired with.
They bonded instantly.
“The second she laid eyes on me, she was just right up at my face, licking it,” Kellermann said as Pilot nudged at his leg with her nose, tail wagging fiercely. “You could just feel the love.”
Of the hundreds of veterans Guardian Angels has matched with dogs since its start nine years ago, not one has died by suicide – a fact the nonprofit is immensely proud of, since about 20 veterans take their own lives each day, according to a report by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Now, Guardian Angels is coming to Washington County. Its new facility in Robinson Township, which is slated to open in about a year and a half, will be larger than the one in Florida and could potentially triple the number of dogs the nonprofit can train annually – around 50 dogs currently.
Jack Wagner, Guardian Angels’ director for the Pittsburgh area, said the nonprofit’s Florida facility alone can’t train dogs fast enough to meet the steep demand. It takes about two years and $22,000 to fully develop a medical service dog. Dogs are taught to recognize panic attacks, nightmares, flashbacks and monitor blood sugar levels, among many things.
When Kellermann experiences a flashback or panic attack, Pilot climbs on top of his chest and bats at his face and neck until he comes to. She is his constant companion and wears a black vest with her name embroidered across the top when she walks with him in public.
“I can go through my task of getting bread or a can of pop at the store, or actually sit down at a restaurant,” he said, his voice straining with emotion. “From the confidence of a dog, you know? It’s craziness.”
Guardian Angels chose Washington County for its new location because of the tremendous support it has received from the Pittsburgh area, Wagner said. In 2015, a group of volunteers formed Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans, a McMurray-based organization that fundraises for Guardian Angels. Since its start, the group has raised enough money to train more than 60 service dogs.
At least 25 veterans in the area have received Guardian Angels-trained service dogs, some of whom were sponsored by local sports teams. Pilot, for instance, was sponsored by the Pittsburgh Pirates. Earlier in the season, she and Kellermann were invited to a home game and introduced to the crowd from home plate.
Fundraising efforts for the new, multimillion dollar facility are ongoing. On Sept. 29, Life Changing Medical Service Dogs for Veterans will host a dinner with a performance by the Skyliners. The money raised will go towards the new facility’s construction.
Kellermann said Pilot brought him back to life. Since bringing her home, he has started volunteering in his community and is renovating a mobile home in Belle Vernon, where he now lives with his mother. He is also thinking about pursuing a degree in psychology at Community College of Allegheny County.
“[Guardian Angels is] on to something good and beautiful, honestly,” Kellermann said, stroking Pilot’s fur as she leaned against his leg. “They really are.”