Lauren Trathen grew up in a military family—her father, her mother, her uncles and cousins all served or are still serving. By the time she graduated high school she set out to fulfill her dream—to join the military and follow in the footsteps of her family. She trusted in the military and felt she had found her place. Not long after her enlistment, her dream was shattered by a sexual assault. Subsequently, she was spurned by the very organization that had vowed to protect her. Diagnosed with post-traumatic stress, Lauren, with her service dog Basil, is now working towards a “new normal.”
While the Department of Defense claims to have a “Zero Tolerance Policy,” the numbers of sexual assault occurrences within the U.S. military have continued to rise.
Since 2006, more than 95,000 service members have been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military.
More than 86% of service members do not report their assault.
Less than five percent of all sexual assaults are put forward for prosecution, and less than a third of those cases result in imprisonment.
EXCERPTS FROM OUR CONVERSATION
Vicki Topaz: Lauren, what led to your decision to enlist in the military?
Lauren Trathen: I enlisted mainly because I grew up as an “army brat.” My father served 23 years. He used to be the sergeant major of Fort Polk [Louisiana]. He ran that whole base. He exemplified everything that I wanted to be. I remember him lacing up his boots when I was a little girl and telling me about how it means a lot to take pride in what you have to do. It’s not just about, “These are my regulations.” And that’s what really motivated me. I knew from a very little girl that I wanted to be a soldier. I come from a large military family. My mom served in the Army for eight years. A bunch of uncles served. I have tons of cousins in the military now. But there was never pressure for me to do it. It was just the lifestyle that I’d known.
Well it sounds like you had some great role models. They must be proud you chose the military?
I’ve never seen my father prouder than when I graduated from basic training. He was just really happy, and my mom was proud as well. I enlisted in 2009 out of Louisiana where I graduated high school. I was going to college before I enlisted. I wanted to be a veterinarian but I decided that college wasn’t for me. I just always thought about the military. It was a driving force.
Where were you stationed?
I was in a couple of different places but the main place where I have the most memories was when I went to the Defense Language Institute down in Monterey, California because that was my job, languages. The institute is where they send their linguists and foreign affairs officers.
That’s how I ended up in California. I was there for language maintenance for Arabic and I liked it a lot. This was a great area to come to. I liked the Language Institute because I’m all about languages. I can speak French, Arabic.
And then after Monterey, and being out here, did you go somewhere else?
Actually, this was where the trauma happened to me and it actually ended my career. This is where I exited the military [in 2012]. They actually had to phase me out, into being a Chaplin’s Assistant before they ended it because of all the stress that I went through. They thought it was a better job for me to have at the time while they were phasing me out.
Is there anything you want to say about what happened?
I think what I want to say about the trauma that happened is, it was very hard to go through. They talk a lot when you’re in the military about–they give you all these lessons about military sexual trauma and about how, when you go through it, you won’t be treated like a victim. Nobody will treat you differently. “We’ll help you, we’ll prosecute the people, that’s not tolerated here.” And I come to find out when it actually happens that’s not true at all. I had a few senior enlisted who were supportive of me for little while. But for the most part, it was just very hard to go through, not just because of the actual trauma itself, but in the resulting aftermath of going to court and having people turn their backs on me and just being a complete outcast from something that I’d spent my whole life dreaming of doing. And then my dream got taken away from me. I think one of the hardest, most tragic parts about it is that it wasn’t my fault, it wasn’t something that I’d asked for. It happened to me and it destroyed my dream. And that’s a trauma in and of itself.
Did your language training at the institute help you when you came out of the military? Were you able to use that in some way?
I came out and decided to stay in Monterey. There are not many jobs that focus solely on languages, and not having too much other experience besides a couple years in the military, it was very difficult to find a job. It was very hard and I really struggled with finding a job because I struggled with going out there, putting in applications, just leaving my house. Learning different languages would be a benefit if I contracted with the military or maybe wanted to tutor or teach somebody. But other than that, I had to find a different job, a job grooming animals, actually, after a month or so of looking.
You were diagnosed with PTSD?
What were some of the symptoms that you experienced?
Everything kind of changes after a trauma happens to you. It’s like everything’s the same but you don’t view anything the same. Everything is different. I couldn’t sleep. It was hard for me to eat. I couldn’t go out anywhere by myself. I became a shut-in basically. And I had a really hard time interacting with people. I was angry and afraid and just very paranoid, consistently all the time. I was in high-drive all the time and there was nothing, nothing I could do to change it.
When did you realize that something was going on with you? How did you recognize it?
I didn’t recognize it. It was actually something that my doctor told me about. It was after I had gotten out of service and I was seeing a doctor at the VA Clinic in Monterey and I was really struggling. I was having a lot of night terrors. I couldn’t sleep at night. I wouldn’t socialize. It was like having a dark cloud hanging over your head all the time. But it’s not just depression. It’s panic, it’s paranoia, like “Everybody’s out to get me.” There’s no safe place. It was so hard and my doctor suggested it. I had heard of PTSD because I had a commanding officer at one point who had pretty severe combat PTSD. I rejected the idea at first, but then over time it made sense and so it was my doctor informing me about what had gone on and how the trauma resulted in PTSD.
Once you had that diagnosis, what did they recommend for treatment?
Their treatment followed along the lines of what I had already been doing in the Army which was a lot of heavy medication and a lot of narcotics to help with the panic attacks and with the night terrors. I was heavily medicated. I walked around like a zombie most of the time because if I didn’t do that I was freaking out. They were trying to see me but the VA is understaffed and they’ve got a lot of people on their hands. They couldn’t see me too much. They tried to outsource me to an outside psychologist on a fee-for-service basis. I went to him once and I couldn’t even finish the session. I never went back again because I was just too stressed out about everything. It was kind of a mixture. They tried to do as much therapy as they could but it was mainly medication that they were giving me to combat the PTSD.
How did you find out about service dogs?
It was the same doctor that diagnosed me with PTSD. After months of not getting anywhere with everything that we were trying, I was just getting worse and struggling. All of a sudden one day, he suggested it because I was grooming at the time, and he could tell that when I talked about the animals at work that it was something that I was passionate about. I really liked the animals, being around the animals, and so he suggested a service dog. At the time, I had no idea that you could even have a service dog for things like PTSD. So, he wrote me a prescription on a piece of paper saying that my condition was severe enough that he thought a service dog would help.
How did you learn about Mary Cortani and Operation Freedom Paws?
Again, the same doctor. I didn’t even know where to begin looking for service dogs. I did a little bit of research but I couldn’t find any around this area at all when doing just regular service dog searches. And, I told him I was getting more stressed out about it. Then he said that he thought he knew of a service dog group in Gilroy. He couldn’t remember their name. He said, “I think it’s Operation Freedom something.” I went home and looked it up and it popped up immediately on Google and I read their website and it was close enough that it was plausible for me to go there. So I sent Mary an email application and started the process hoping that maybe this would be something that could help me. I just had no idea if it would at the time.
About how long ago was that?
The service dog idea was in August of 2012. I met with Mary and we went over the application and talked about the things that I’d been through to see if it was a good match.
And did Basil come to you through Mary?
It’s pronounced like “dazzle” but with a “B.” No, he didn’t. When I was getting out of service I had an excellent psychologist. She saved my life. I owe everything to her. I wouldn’t have made it out of the military if it hadn’t been for her. Phasing out, she was worried so she actually suggested to me, “You need to have something that propels you, and motivates you to stay here, to not commit suicide, and to get out of bed every day. I really think that you need to get an interactive pet like a dog. Get a dog.” A week or two before I got out of the service I found an apartment but they only allowed a certain size of dog. I ended up settling on the breed of Corgi. I purchased him from a breeder because I couldn’t find any rescues. I bought him as a puppy and I’d already been raising him. He was probably six months or so, maybe seven months, when we met Mary. He was already my own personal dog by the time that I met Mary. I think at first she was going to give me a different dog because I remember her talking about a Lab or maybe a German Shepherd. But in the meantime she asked me to bring Basil to class and after a couple of sessions she said, “No, Basil’s it. He’s already working for you, he’s it. He’s what you should have.”
Given your symptoms and challenges, tell me how life is different with Basil and how he helps you.
Life is different because I have more motivation to go places. I’ve had a couple of instances where he wasn’t feeling well, or I wasn’t allowed to bring him along, and I’ve found that I just can’t go places without him.It’s a big struggle and with him, it’s the security of having somebody that’s always watching your back. I don’t have to do it. I don’t have to be so stressed out. I don’t have to be so watchful because it’s like in the military, you always have one of your brothers or sisters-in-arms watching out for you. You go into a situation and you know you’re not alone because you’ve got your flank on your right, your left. They’ve got your “six.” And having a service dog is almost like that same feeling of camaraderie; again, that same feeling of knowing that you’re not alone. That you face every challenge with somebody who is fully devoted to making sure that you’re okay. When it comes to night terrors and nightmares, he’ll wake me up. He’ll come and put his head on my chest if my heart’s beating too fast. He’s good about being watchful and concerned, and he keeps a spatial barrier around me. I know if anybody’s coming up behind me or near me because he’ll watch them. He’s really, really alert and he takes the pressure off of me. He’s my guardian, he’s everything to me.
It also looks like he can sense if something’s making you feel uneasy, without your having to tell him.
I don’t always have to tell him if there’s something wrong. Sometimes he’ll pick up on it before I even realize that there’s something wrong. He’ll let me know. He’ll paw at me. He’ll make me take a break from whatever I’m doing and re-focus my energy and my mind on him. He’ll interrupt my repetitive thoughts sometimes and when I disassociate he’ll make me come back to reality. Nobody can be aggressive around me because that was a big thing for me going through all the shunning and horrible things that I went through coming out of service. Nobody can be aggressive around me. Nobody can yell. Nobody can make startling movements too quickly towards me, or anything like that, because he’s right there to defend me. He’s there to tell me. He lets me know. He picks up on a lot of it even if it’s a smallest bit of anxiety all the way to a big panic attack. He gets it every time.
Basil can wake me up from the nightmares and the night terrors. He can put pressure on my chest when my heart is racing or it feels like I can’t breathe. He helps me to regulate my breath and ground myself. I also have a lot of pain in my back and my shoulder from an accident that I was in in-service and if I’m in too much pain, he can actually bring me things. He’s taught to bring me my medication, he’s taught to bring me my keys and whatnot, so, he’s a huge help when I’m struggling.
It looks like Basil also works very well with your new family.
That’s his baby. He’s very protective of her. If somebody else goes to touch her he’ll make sure that he watches over her. Yes, he’s very protective, not in an aggressive way. He’s just very watchful, very protective, ready to step in if he has to.
And it looks like he and [your husband] Nick also get along.
Yeah, he’s got a pretty good rapport with Nick. He got a little defensive in the very beginning of Nick’s and my relationship because it had just been me and Basil. He’d been the person that I relied on the most so it was a little bit of an adjustment for Basil, but he likes Nick a lot now.
He’s come to know that it’s a safe situation for you. Dogs are amazing.
They’re very intuitive.
When you’re out in public with Basil, does anyone ever give you a hard time? Is it a challenge?
There are a lot of animal lovers out there so I get a lot of positive responses. However, I do get a lot of judgmental responses being that he is a smaller service dog. I get those kind of looks because he’s not a Labrador, he’s not a German Shepherd, he’s not a Golden Retriever.
I’ve only has a couple of access issues where somebody told me that dogs were not allowed, or that I needed paperwork or some sort of certification or an ID card. I actually almost got thrown out of a place because this manager kept telling me, “You can’t have a dog here in this restaurant, you can’t have a dog in here.” Another time, I also almost got thrown out too. This gentleman was getting very serious about it. It was during the government shutdown, so you couldn’t call the DOD office and confirm about the law even though I’d given him a card that stated the law. And that was very nerve-racking and anxiety-producing because I thought that I was going to have to call the police and get involved in all this nonsense that I didn’t want to do.
But for the most part, people don’t really hassle me. I guess the only hassle is every other person wants to stop me to talk about my dog. Most of the comments I get are, “Oh, isn’t it going to be hard to give him up, you know, after training him?” I’m like, “Oh, no, he’s for me.” That’s probably the biggest hassle. That’s the struggle I deal with and people touching him. I don’t get too many negative experiences like management coming up and hassling me.
The public needs to be more educated about what’s happening.
They definitely do because, I mean, it’s just ignorance. Somebody sees a dog and if you like dogs, if you like animals, it’s like, “Oh, a puppy!” And you want to touch the dog, you want to talk to the dog, you want to talk to the person about the dog. What people don’t realize is that, technically, I don’t mean to sound callous, but this is a piece of working medical equipment. It would be like somebody coming up and starting to push around someone’s wheelchair or mess with it. You know, kick out somebody’s cane from beneath them, because when you talk to the dog you distract them.
And I realize people aren’t doing it harmfully, but it still is kind of an annoyance. It’s a little bit of a burden. And if people were more educated, they would realize that it’s more appropriate to talk to the handler. I might very well be okay with you petting my dog but I prefer if you ask me instead before talking to the dog. More education can go a long way because there are some people who don’t even realize that a service dog can be anything but a guide dog. Some people think it’s only for blind people, only for deaf people.
Tell me about Operation Freedom Paws. I know you and Basil train there but are there other things you enjoy, other benefits that you get from being there?
Well, I don’t have family in this area and I don’t have very many friends, so I don’t have many social supports here. I don’t have anybody to rely on. So Operation Freedom Paws has become like a family to me. If I’m having a hard time, there’s always somebody to talk to. There’s somebody that understands, always. I guess I can go out and find some other group with interests like mine, like book reading or something, but it’s not the same. It’s almost like some of these people have been through similar circumstances as me, or they’ve served, so they understand the mentality of being in the military. It’s like everybody else is broken in a way, or has challenges. They understand being challenged, so it’s like a camaraderie-type thing. And they’ve always been there for me, to help me with my dog’s training and actually just help me in life in general, and it’s what I live for in a week. I get up and know that I get to go to class that night, or I know I only have another day before I can go to class. It’s what I look forward to in my week. It’s the only thing I really have to hold on to day by day. They’re like a family to me. They’re more than just a program
When you’re thinking of other veterans, men or women, who are struggling with PTSD but haven’t reached out for help or are afraid to or can’t, what advice would you offer them?
I would say that it’s not weakness to reach out for help. It’s not weakness to care about yourself, to care about your own well-being. There’s strength in people that actually can ask for help. There are so many who won’t. If you’re having a hard time and you’re struggling and you feel like the world is ending and you have no one at your back, that’s not gonna change unless you reach out to somebody. And all it takes is one person to change your life for the better. But it actually takes a stronger person to realize that they need help, and seek help. You’re not doing anybody, especially yourself, any good if you’re broken all the time. It’s so hard to deal with PTSD. You’re never relaxed. You can never enjoy anything. You’re just stuck in this loop all the time. I would encourage people to not listen to the stereotypes. It does not make you weak. It doesn’t mean there’s anything negative about you if you seek help.
They currently don’t think there’s a cure for PTSD but that doesn’t mean it can’t get better. You don’t have to wake up every single day angry and stressed-out. You don’t have to go to bed and dread closing your eyes because you see images of everything that happened to you. It doesn’t have to be like that. You can get to a point where your life is not the way it used to be, but somewhat normal, somewhat good, brighter, happier. I would strongly encourage other veterans to try to find something that works for them. Don’t let their doctors just load them up with medication. The goal is not just to make it through every day, except maybe in the very beginning, but eventually it’s to actually to live your life. To actually be able to live life again, not just make it through a day. That’s really the goal. And that’s what I would encourage everybody else struggling with PTSD to look forward to, to make that their goal, not just to make it through a day or to go through the motions but to actually enjoy the motions and enjoy their life.
I know they say that with PTSD, don’t look for the cure, it’s something that you learn to live with. From what you’ve said so far, it sounds like having Basil has been one of the ingredients that you’ve found that’s helped. Do you feel that you’ve seen progress for yourself since you’ve had a service dog?
I definitely feel like there’s been progress because I can go out more and it’s helped over time. Speaking to people now, it’s not as hard in the stores when they stop me. There are still times where I’ll get angry or anxious and nervous and I’ll turn and walk away and leave, I’ll just walk out. But for the most part, it’s a good bridge, I think, between someone with PTSD and the normal population. Sometimes you feel so out of place, like you don’t belong there, and to have a bridge, and you know, people love your dog and you love your dog because your dog is saving your life and helping you, so it’s a good little bridge. It’s a good common denominator, a common thing between you and somebody else that, even if you just have a two minute conversation every day, a good conversation with somebody else, it helps to re-acclimate yourself to being a part of society again. I think it’s a really good tool. I know sometimes it’s not for everybody. Some people can’t handle the extra attention that you get which is kind of a negative, but it also helps you work through that extra attention. And then it’ll bother you less and less as time goes on. There’s actually something in science called “habituation.” It’s the natural physical response. Your body cannot maintain a high level of panic or anxiety.
It’s just physically impossible. So over time, you’ll become less anxious the more you expose yourself to a situation. Which is why it’s not good to close yourself in at home because the more you get out, the more you face whatever situation, the less anxiety you’ll have each time you face it. So having a service dog, the more times somebody comes up to me and challenges me or greets me or asks about my dog, it does become less and less anxiety-producing as time goes on.
I also wonder if there’s anything that you’d say to women who are thinking of going into the military or who are in the military now?
I would say to those who are in the service, you should always keep staying the course. I realize that it’s still very hard to be a female in the military. Sometimes you’ll get passed up for promotions. Things are definitely still very difficult. They aren’t that equal. I would just encourage those who are still in to not ever lose faith. Just keep trying. Be the best soldier, sailor, marine, airman, whatever it is you are, be the best of that you possibly can be. Excel above others. People will notice it over time and they will overlook your gender. A drill sergeant of mine actually ended up telling me, as a female in the military, we have to do things twice as good as males to be noticed. She said, “Even if it takes eight of you females to do something that one male could do, you do that and don’t ever ask for help from a guy.” Not saying to shun the males in your unit or anything like that, but just try not to rely on them. In regular civilian society it’s okay to ask a guy for help, it’s actually encouraged. “Guys, be chivalrous,” you know, “Open doors for us, open jars for us.” In the military, you have to stand apart and show your strength, otherwise you won’t be respected.
When it comes to some sort of trauma like military sexual trauma, don’t ever be afraid to speak up. And, don’t ever let yourself get in a situation where when you’re with your guy friends, don’t ever let them disrespect you. You kind of become “one of the guys” when you’re in the military, but that shouldn’t mean they don’t have to respect you as a woman. They shouldn’t talk about your body. They shouldn’t make disrespectful comments to you. And if you make it a consistent thing that you won’t stand for that type of behavior, it may help you to never get into a situation that other women have found themselves in where they probably just stay quiet about it, let that kind of harassment go on because they don’t want to be looked at as weak. They don’t want to be shunned by their fellow male soldiers by being prude about that type of thing. They should stand up for themselves.
As you think of veterans, is there anything else you’d like to say?
Even though Basil has been a lifesaver to me, service dogs are not always the right thing for everybody. If a veteran is thinking about getting a service dog, they really should stop and talk about it with trainers or with their doctor because you need to be able to give the animal the care that it needs and deserves, and put the time and effort into it. And like Mary tells us, you need to leave the house two hours a day to go out and work on training or work on being in a store and out in public. They need to have the intestinal fortitude, or the medication if that what gets you to do it at first, to be able to go out and do those types of things because it’s not enough to just drag a dog around with you places. You need to make sure that the dog can work for you and that you’re okay when people will come up to you more because they notice you more, whereas you might have blended in before. But you’re not going to blend in with a dog. You need to make sure it’s what’s right for you versus just having somebody suggest that you get one, and then you get one and then you’re in over your head and it’s causing you more harm than good.
Also, when a veteran with PTSD does get a service dog, they shouldn’t get into it thinking that it will be a protection dog. It’s a big thing. When it comes to PTSD, you want a dog that’s looking out for you and telling you when somebody’s coming up, and making sure there’s a barrier. And there’s a totally different distinction with having a dog that will attack someone if they startle you or get too close to you. I personally know of a few veterans who have dogs that failed out of protection work and they went on to train the dog to be a service dog because they liked the fact that that dog has been trained with protection and bite work. And that’s not a good thing. When I think about somebody with PTSD, knowing myself and plenty of other veterans, there could come a time where we don’t react to the situation appropriately and we can give that dog a signal that we either knowingly or unknowingly mean to give the dog. And that dog, who’s trained in aggression or protection work, could end up attacking somebody else just because of our own panic and anxiety, and how we feel that fight-or-flight syndrome. It’s not safe for other people out in the public. It’s not safe for us to have dogs like that because we may not handle it right or the dog might not handle the situation right.
It also hurts all the other service dog teams. It’s the same way with people using “fake service dogs.” The first dog that goes into a restaurant and pees or barks or lunges at somebody, then I come into a restaurant with my well-behaved service dog and the owner doesn’t want to let me in because he or she has previously had a [fake] service dog team that’s come in and the dog was out of control or vicious or something. It does bring a negative stereotype to those who actually really depend on their service dogs to simply function in day-to-day life.
There are a lot of people who show their National Service Dog Registry stuff and they’ve got their little “Fluffy” and they’re like, “Oh, look, now I can bring Fluffy everywhere with me.” And they don’t have a disability. They just paid the ninety dollars to get their fake vest and fake certification. And now they’re gonna bring this untrained dog everywhere, or stick the dog in shopping carts, put it in the seat with them in the restaurants, let the dog put its head on the table. It’s destroying my life and my ability to go out there and do things because I go somewhere and I get judged not only for having a service dog but having a smaller service dog because a lot of the time it is the smaller service dogs that are getting the fake registries because somebody wants to cart around their little tiny Yorkie. It’s hard for me and upsetting that people would do that. If I could, I would trade having him with me for being normal. I would give up the dog and having my dog, my best friend, with me, just to be normal, to be able to go somewhere without him, to be able to just be normal. I would give it all up. And people don’t understand that. They think it’s cute. But, it wouldn’t be cute if it’s somebody who is very able-bodied was walking around with crutches or rolling around in a wheelchair thinking it’s fun to do that, because it’s not. Those are very serious things that have happened to people and they need those devices to make themselves somewhat normal, and it’s the same thing with service dogs.
These are important distinctions.
A service dog is there to help you; to just make sure that you can lead a normal life, not to add protection. It’s not a bodyguard. It’s simply to help enable you to be normal, not to be protected in the sense that a bodyguard would. For PTSD you shouldn’t go looking for a dog that will protect you. The dog will alert you. The dog will let you know what’s going on around you. If physical harm were to come to you, of course, the dog is probably going to jump in there to protect you but it shouldn’t be what they’re looking for because that’s not the proper way to have a service dog, and it’s a really big danger. It would be more of a hindrance to have a dog that would react like that if you have PTSD because then it amps your adrenaline up to that fight-or-flight type thing. And that’s what you’re trying to move away from, not go towards.
It’s less about protection and more about watchfulness. It’s like the command we use to “watch your back.” They’re watching everything all the time so you don’t have to because PTSD is accompanied with so much paranoia and so much panic of just being around other people. The dog helps to lessen that because the dog will take on those burdens for you so you don’t have to, versus having a dog you could sic on somebody else that would freak out if a person comes near you. That’s not the point of having a PTSD dog. So if that’s what somebody’s after, it’s definitely not the right thing for them. That’s something that’s been kind of bothering me since I’ve been in the service dog world, when some people ask me, “Oh I bet he protects you huh? He’d go after somebody.” It’s important to tell people, “No, if I was being physically harmed perhaps. But no, he’s not here for protection. He’s not a protection dog, he’s a service dog. He’s working to mitigate my disabilities, not to protect my person.
I was one of those who wanted a bigger dog so people will be less likely to come up to me. You may want a big dog, like a big Doberman or a big German Shepherd, but the best thing for you might be a small sweet Lab or even a little Poodle or a Beagle. So what you want versus what you need won’t always be the same thing. I would encourage people to keep an open mind and don’t keep breaking away at the ice trying to make a dog work. It’s like if somebody has a prosthetic, they’re not going to keep a prosthetic that’s too big, too short, or broken in some way. They’re going to get the right fit because it’s the only way they’re going to be able keep moving forward.
It took me a while to actually give in to Mary and to realize that Basil was exactly what I needed rather than fighting her and thinking, “I want a bigger dog. I want a big dog, a scary dog.” I get why people want those types of breeds but I’m so lucky to have Mary who could show me it really is what you need versus what you want.
I appreciate your talking with me Lauren.
I appreciate your asking me to talk with you. I’m really proud to be a part of this project. It’s hard to think about it and talk about it, but it’s something that you have to do especially if it’s going to benefit other people and bring awareness. It’s something I’m willing to do for that.