SOLDIER STORIES: Man’s best friend, survivor’s companion.
 Rosco, a “Survivor Syndrome Companion Animal” stands ready to be petted while his veteran, Sgt. 1st Class Jason Syriac, talks to soldiers at his unit in Charlotte, N.C. about the benefits of companion animals for soldiers who have "Survivor Syndrome.” Syriac also spends his free time helping to rescue and train other dogs, in hopes that some of those animals will become companion animals for other service members who endure the condition as well.
 Rosco stands behind his veteran during formation. Sgt. 1st Class Jason Syriac is a two-time OIF veteran and currently serves as a military police officer with the North Carolina National Guard’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 130th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.
(U.S. Army National Guard Photos and article by Staff Sgt. Mary Junell, 130th Maneuver Enhanced Brigade Public Affairs, 11 JAN 2014. Modifications to article content and wording by R. Etzweiler, 18 JAN 2014.)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. - When Rosco walked into the North Carolina Army National Guard Armory in Charlotte, N.C., Jan. 11, 2013, everyone noticed. Every soldier turned their heads as he entered the room; his golden hair flowing, his tail wagging and a great big smile on his face.
Rosco is not just any ordinary dog though; he is a [Survivor Syndrome] companion animal. His veteran is Sgt. 1st Class Jason Syriac, a military police officer with the NCNG’s Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 130th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.
“Rosco is a companion animal,” said Syriac, who copes with his condition daily. “He is certified to go into buildings, but he has no specific job but to be a therapeutic dog.”
That job, though, is a very important job for any veteran who struggles daily to engage healthy coping mechanisms for their condition. Training for a companion animal varies depending on where it is trained, but most dogs require one to three weeks or more of training based on the skills they need to perform.
Dogs like Rosco, whose task is largely companionship and emotional support, do not require as much intensive training. However, some dogs may learn how to turn on lights in a house if the service member is afraid of going into a dark house or to alert their owner if there is a situation that may trigger some aspect of their condition.
“A companion animal has to qualify as a good-citizen dog,” said Syriac. “It has to go through a series of tests and training to make sure the dog is qualified as a good-citizen; that he won’t be aggressive or be nervous or bite anybody.”
There are currently several organizations across the country that train companion animals and bring together dogs and service members struggling with Survivor Syndrome. Triumphant Tails, Inc., an organization based out of Raleigh N.C., trains service dogs for people with a broad range of needs, including veterans.
“Training a service dog for a [soldier with Survivor Syndrome] can take from 6-12 months depending on what tasks the service dog needs to perform,” said Megan Standish, founder and head trainer at Triumphant Tails.
Standish, a former Army captain, suffered a traumatic brain injury while serving in Iraq, which causes her to suffer seizures. She started Triumphant Tails after being introduced to therapy and service dogs during her recovery. She said her personal service dog alerts her when she is about to have a seizure so she can take her medication. The dogs she trains can also perform a variety of tasks to help their handlers.
“Some of the tasks these dogs can perform are blocking, waking a handler during a nightmare and retrieving medications so the handler doesn’t forget to take them,” Standish said. “Dogs can also retrieve items on command, call 911 in an emergency and turn on lights. We can tailor each dog to the specific need of each handler.”
In addition to being helpful, there are many benefits to the relationship formed between the service members and their dog. “Some people, all they need is a buddy to be there for them between their ups and downs and not judge,” Syriac said. “Dogs are always happy to see you. They are not going to betray you or leave you for another owner.”
Service members with [Survivor Syndrome] can sometimes be tense and worried. Syriac said having a companion animal like Rosco around could distract from those feelings and helps service members deal with their surroundings. “Everyone flocks over Rosco,” Syriac said. “People ask to pet him and they love on him and they get down on the floor with him. He brings happiness to everyone.”
“That’s another benefit of companion animals,” he said. “If other people are happy and you see other people being happy, your tendency is to become happy as well. It’s contagious.”
Standish said this interaction can be a benefit and help start the recovery process for service members with [Survivor Syndrome]. “A dog forces you [to engage], to get out and interact with society,” Standish said. “Even just taking your dog for a walk two times a day and acknowledging and answering questions and comments like ‘Your dog is so pretty’ or ‘What is his name,’ is a great start to learning how to function in society again.”
Dogs need exercise and so do service members with this condition. “You know your dog needs exercise so you are definitely going to bring the dog out and exercise it,” Syriac said. “Exercise benefits those suffering from this condition.” And that is what Syriac said works for him, exercise and a companion animal. He said those two things keep him centered and relaxed.
Syriac, a two-time Iraq veteran, spends his free time rescuing dogs from kill shelters in the Raleigh area; training them and familiarizing them with domestic environments (or “re-homing” them) to civilians and service members so that they too can enjoy the benefits he said he gets from Rosco. “There are a lot of high-kill shelters in the area where a lot of dogs just need a home,” he said. “So I scoop them up and re-home; I train them and integrate them into society and introduce them to other dogs. Rosco has seen 18 dogs come through my home in the past year and he welcomed them all with open paws.”
Of those 18 dogs, four became companion animals, and Syriac has no problem traveling to get K-9s to their new homes. He has driven as far north as Boston and as far south as Florida to bring dogs to their new owners. Syriac hopes that others will get to experience the joy and benefits of having a dog as a companion.
“Rosco is always there for me,” he said. “Even if I’m having a miserable day, I can just look at Rosco and he makes me happy.”