P2V: Weaving gold from straw

Eben Carle Contributor
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His father always told him that when a man points a gun in your face, if he doesn’t fire in the first two seconds then he doesn’t want to. You know you have time, however brief, to change the outcome.

In November 2001, the advice would prove useful to Dave Sharpe while he was serving abroad in the wake of 9/11. He had a physical confrontation with a Taliban sympathizer in a 10’ by 10’ hut. When he thought it was over he turned his back on the man and began to walk away, only to hear the metallic click of a round being chambered. He turned to find himself staring down the barrel of an MP-5 machine gun. He raised his own weapon and that’s when his father’s advice kicked in: he lowered his rifle, feigning surrender, and tackled the man.

He later walked it off. That’s what you do. Dave Sharpe is the fifth generation of a military family with an unbroken line of service that dates back to the Civil War. His father, an Army Ranger for 32 years, served during the Vietnam era and was a unit commander during the riots in Augusta, Georgia, during the 1960s.

After Dave returned to the States, acclimation to life on this side of the pond proved difficult. Soon after returning, one friend and one fellow Security Forces Airman committed suicide. One of their girlfriends asked Dave to collect a few belongings from the dead friend’s apartment. Dave entered the room and the first thing he noticed was dried blood in the cracks of the floor where his friend shot himself. “That was my trigger,” Dave reflects, “I began imagining slow-motion bullets going through my head. After that, I felt the walls caving in. I stopped seeing friends. I stopped taking calls from my family.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a new phenomenon. Across the wars of the 20th century it has taken on different names: shell shock, battle fatigue, and today PTSD. Our soldiers leave the battlefield but the battle doesn’t automatically leave them upon arriving back in the States. Historically, veterans found comfort in talking to other veterans with common experiences. Anecdotes were shared over a beer at VFWs and American Legions in small towns across America. Today’s veterans have a unique challenge. They are returning to a different country than their predecessors. In many respects, the United States has become a more understanding country, but for that very reason the re-acclimation is all the more foreign to those who just served in combat.

When a thunderstorm broke out over Dave’s home in Arlington, Virginia, the crash of thunder kicked in his muscle-memory, and he found himself walking the perimeter of his suburban lawn, as though he was still protecting his base.

That was when a friend offered a suggestion: “Let’s go check out a pit bull rescue center.” It was time, he surmised, for Dave to adopt a dog. They drove to the animal shelter, where Dave saw the litter of puppies. One of the puppies played hard to get. “She came over and licked my hand then went back to the other side of the play pin,” remembers Sharpe. “I knew then: I was going to make her love me. I love challenges.”

He took her home and named her Cheyenne. Two weeks later, Dave woke from a nightmare. He walked to the kitchen and became violent, hitting walls and the refrigerator door. In the corner of his eye, an innocent puppy’s tail wagged. Her head cocked to the side. Cheyenne was confused. “I screamed at her and told her to shut up. She barked right back at me,” Dave recalls. “And my mother always said to let a woman have the last word.” So he took Cheyenne into his arms and told her everything he was going through. He let more out than he could tell any human being. “You can tell a pet anything. There is this limitless, unconditional love — without judgment.”

“The veterans at Walter Reed and the Veterans Affairs hospital all say the same thing: there is only so much the doctors and meds can do,” Dave says. “Opening up to a pet is great practice for re-engaging with life. A veteran is able to then make far more ground with family, friends and, in some cases, doctors. I got my life back.”

That life soon returned to protecting others. While later deployed in Pakistan in 2004, Dave stood guard duty and spotted two men acting suspiciously at the perimeter. As he approached them, a gust of wind pushed back the jacket on one to reveal a bomb belt and a fist clenched around a detonator. Dave maintained composure. He talked to the suicide bombers — and at last offered the one holding the detonator a stick of gum. This provided a distraction in which the suicide bomber put down the detonator and took the gum. No one died that day.

“It was a different experience the second time because I knew that whatever happened, whenever frustrations mounted over there, Cheyenne was back at home, waiting.”

Upon returning to the States, Dave decided to continue his service to his country by helping two vulnerable populations: the more than 9.5 million veterans with PTSD and the nearly 5 million shelter animals that are euthanized each year. “Every day, 18 veterans with PTSD lose the fight, and every 8 seconds a shelter animal is euthanized.”

In October 2009, Dave Sharpe launched P2V, a program that pairs pets and veterans.  It was a simple idea with a profound and immediate impact. By bringing together veterans — and now emergency first responders — with shelter animals, he was able to give both groups a new lease on life. At first he had modest hopes, setting the goal of uniting one veteran with one shelter animal in the first year. He spent all of his personal savings to launch the effort — one year later, as of today, he has made 23 matches between veterans, emergency first responders, and shelter animals with the help of a small volunteer staff.

The unique thing about P2V is that it allows members of the military to seek help outside of the traditional bureaucracy and without the stigma that is often associated with declaring PTSD. “Many soldiers are not used to asking for help; they have been trained to be the help. These men and women are out there, alone in the woods and can’t really walk up to a stranger or even a family member and have a conversation about what they are going through.” Dave says, “Our goal is to help veterans come in from the woods on their own terms.”

Dave is seeking to expand P2V to areas with high veteran populations and a corresponding high number of shelter animals, like San Diego. Down the road he sees P2V assisting first responders and police officers. “Police and firefighters protect our streets, they allow soldiers to come home to a safe country.”

Dave Sharpe is still operating on a shoe-string budget, with the help of volunteers. Dave burned through his savings to start the organization, but now P2V is financed by personal and corporate donations and grants. Veterans Day is designed to honor those who have sacrificed for us. The Sharpe family, with five generations of service, understands that all too well.

At a P2V fundraiser on the eve of Veterans Day 2010, two veterans told a small gathering they “almost called it quits” before this kid from Georgia, who spent all his money on an idea, came along and saved their lives. He gave them another option: save themselves and the life of a sheltered animal that would love them forever.

Today the History Channel will play the black-and-white reels of those brave soldiers of the “Greatest Generation.” They deserve it: they were great. Yet there is a new generation of greats being forged in America. Veterans Day is about Dave Sharpe, a guy who served this nation abroad before teaching the world how to save people and dogs and cats in one action. He personifies the humility that made the American people great, but Dave, embodying the better part of that greatness, says quietly, “I’m not anything special — we’re Americans; when we see a problem, we gotta fix it.”

Eben Carle served in the White House as an Associate Director on the Homeland Security Council from 2008-2009. He received a master’s degree in American studies from Columbia University and is currently writing his first novel.