SAN DIEGO -
Sgt. Jesse James and his dog Jag are inseparable. But Jag is not just a pet, she's a post-traumatic stress disorder service dog. She protects James from the memory of a 2006 explosion, which he relives every night when he sleeps.
"Just imagine if right now you instantly went blind and deaf," said James. "You see body parts everywhere. After we got back, the nightmares started getting really bad."
James suffered six years of nightmares. His truck was hit twice in Iraq and he survived. He said that the event – along with eight years and three tours – left him with an invisible wound.
"After that, you don't feel anything anymore," said James. "But it's like being bipolar… the smallest things can set you off. Constant vigilance… I wasn't able to sleep at night. I was afraid of being attacked. I could only sleep during the day when I knew my family was awake and safe."
These days, he is beginning to feel more like himself. He found Jag through a local nonprofit called Tender Loving Canines, which trains and places service dogs with veterans free of charge.
Jag and James have been together since May and for the first time in a long time, James is sleeping at night.
He is one of more than 6,000 veterans being treated for PTSD in San Diego and many of those veterans are requesting service animals. Tender Loving Canines says the number of requests is on the rise. Volunteers at Tender Loving Canines are currently training 12 dogs for an applicant pool of more than 150.
Service dogs are more than just cuddly companions. Trainer Stephanie Myung said they can turn on lights for veterans who are afraid of attacks. Jag also has a special skill: she blocks strangers from approaching James when he is feeling anxious.
10News reporter Natasha Zouves investigated the cost of the dogs and she found they do not come cheap. One PTSD service dog takes two years to train and costs on average $14,000. The concern is that nonprofits cannot cover all veterans and without funding from the Department of Veterans Affairs, many veterans will not be able to afford these dogs.
The VA recently issued a statement changing their policy on funding PTSD service animals. It is a move that critics say implies service animals are not a legitimate treatment for PTSD.
In the new policy, the VA says, "Although we do not disagree with some... subjective accounts that mental health service dogs have improved the quality of their lives, VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide a medical benefit… cannot justify providing benefits for mental health service dogs."
James said he has the proof the VA needs; he is living it.
"Jag has absolutely changed my life and my family's life," he said. "I was on about seven or eight different medications for every symptom. Now I’m only on two."
Tuesday morning is James' last in the military. He is headed home to his family for good and has been dreaming about the day for eight years.
"I tried not to do stupid things out there, so I could come home to them, you know?" he said.
Now, he is coming home with a new addition to the family.