SHERIDAN — It’s hard not to smile watching Sheridan College student Jason King romp through the yard outside the Thorne-Rider Campus Center with his energetic young Dalmatian.
The duo seems full of life and has a visible connection that emanates happiness.
Seeing them, you would never guess that just a few years ago King’s now radiant life resembled one much less joyous.
Originally from Bakersfield, California, King served in the Army for 9 years as a combat engineer.
After being stationed in Germany, Colorado and Missouri, he spent 3.5 years in Iraq over the course of three tours.
According to the U.S. Army, the primary duties of a combat engineer include placing and detonating explosives, conducting operations that include route clearance of obstacles and rivers, preparing and installing firing systems for demolition and explosives and detecting mines visually or with mine detectors.
King’s job was stressful and often dangerous.
Outside of combat and explosives, the personal toll of war also wore on him.
During his second tour in Iraq, King deployed as a married man and upon returning learned his wife had left him.
“It’s a story heard too often and that in of its own takes a toll,” he said. “Returning for my third tour, it was getting old seeing that happen to other people. It’s a hard lifestyle.”
After his third tour in Iraq, King decided it was time to leave the military.
“The effects of war, of going on deployments, they started to take their toll on me,” he said.
Post-military life did not offer King the peace he sought.
A fellow veteran of the war in Iraq and King’s roommate at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, Colorado, committed suicide.
The friends were attending college and one morning King headed home with the intention of picking up his roommate and taking him to the local Veterans Affairs facility to seek help. He found his roommate dead.
“It tore down every single wall that I had; every accomplishment that I had made toward not giving up fell down,” King said. “After that I couldn’t get my head around anything beyond that. I needed a place to clear my head and get away.”
In light of failing schoolwork and struggling to find positivity, King decided to move in with his father in Buffalo.
“It was a hard choice for me. A lot of pride had to be swallowed,” he said. “Having to move back in with my dad as a 30-year-old after everything I had gone through felt lame, like the ultimate failure, but it was the greatest thing I have done with myself since the suicide situation.”
“If a situation like that had occurred and I didn’t learn from it, I would feel like I was letting somebody down,” he continued. “I made a promise to my buddy that I would get right and I would be successful, and that motivated me and encouraged me to not give up.”
King reached out to the local VA for help and after reaching a place where he could think outside of what had happened, he decided he was ready to be a productive member of society again.
King began working toward a job with the U.S. Forest Service.
He got a job on the trails board, started getting involved in the community and continued learning more about the USFS.
King attended school at Sheridan College, received therapy at the VA and took prescribed medications, but still had times when it was not enough.
There were several situations in which King could not function without feeling high levels of anxiety or fear.
He was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
“I have a lot of issues when it comes to large groups of people,” King said. “It brings me back to places in Iraq when I had to go into populated areas and look for IEDs, where usually when there was a large group around, that was a sign that something was going to happen. It was an ambush or something. Every time I woke up in the morning and went to do my daily duties I felt like I was going back to the battlefield on the front lines. I didn’t want to be trapped by invisible walls, so to say.”
An interview opportunity arose, and King finally landed a job working for the USFS as a Visitor Information Specialist.
On duty one day last year, he was introduced to a new friend, this one four-legged, during an encounter with a fellow veteran accompanied by a service dog.
“I did a little bit of research for service animals, seeing what all they can do. Just by being a dog they help with anxiety; dogs have this incredible power to calm you down in a lot of situations,” he said.
He started working through the VA to find a way to get connected with a service animal, but found that in the remoteness of Wyoming, there weren’t a lot of options.
In the end, King learned he would need to self certify a dog, meaning he would be in charge of training the animal to pass the good citizens test — an obedience test that shows the dog won’t be a nuisance in public.
On Veterans Day of last year, King brought home his new best friend, Sam the Dalmatian.
“When you’re in the military, you have a ‘call of battle buddy’ and no matter what you’ve got each others’ back, and that’s what I feel like when I have Sam with me,” King said. “Not only do I have to live for myself, I have to live for him.”
King went through the National Service Animal Registry to certify Sam and now the pair is inseparable, and King is determined to help other suffering veterans find their friends.
“With how many vets are coming back and being diagnosed with PTSD it’s odd that the closest way you can achieve getting a certified service dog is to go to Maryland or another state; it seems excessive,” he said. “But Wyoming is a very ‘can do’ state and I need to let people know there are ways to do it yourself. There is a very large do it yourself culture here, which is great, so if I can provide people with any information, it makes me feel good.”
King carries business cards for NSAR and distributes not only those but several other various informational items to local veterans, with the goal of making them feel that they’re represented out here in Wyoming.
“I was going to the VA every two weeks, getting the therapy and meds I needed, but I realized if that was all I was getting from each trip to the VA, I wasn’t getting its full purpose,” he said. “I started knocking on doors every time I was there, asking about events and resources.”
“There are a lot of folks out here that don’t know what veterans are entitled to,” he continued. “I want to shed some light and let these people know you have rights here and you have benefits you should be using. I’m just trying to help veterans any way I can without a large organization around this area to help us.”
King is now involved in the Wounded Warrior Project, which connects veterans throughout the country with peer mentors in their area.
“Wounded Warrior Project mentors are alumni veterans that have crossed the bridge on their way to recover to a place where they can provide a shoulder to lean on,” King said.
Another service he tries to promote is the Casper Vet Center.
“If you need help and don’t know where to go, you can contact these guys and all you have to do is show your discharge papers,” he said. “You don’t have to be rated by the VA to be seen by them. It’s just another thing provided for these rural areas.”
But with all the groups and services supporting King, and vice versa, his biggest supporter is always by his side: Sam.
“He cheers me up when I have my bad days, he pulls me through a lot of funks,” King said. “Therapy and medication are often not enough on their own and he covers that grey area.”
King said on days when he is going through something particularly hard, he can’t help but look at Sam’s goofy grin and big floppy ears and feel like a lucky man; a feeling which is evident by the way King giggles his way through his life story…even the hard parts to tell.
“I want to serve as inspiration to other veterans,” he said. “I didn’t want to do these things, go through these things, keep going. But once you condition yourself to do these things, it sets patterns. Your mind can say, ‘you’re back in America, you’re safe, these people are not going to hurt you.’”
“If you’re out there struggling, don’t give up, seek help,” he added. “We’re loosing too many veterans to suicide these days and it’s not the right answer. You might not see it, but there is a light at the end of the tunnel. You just need some help finding it.”