By EJ Haben
It is famously said that a dog is a man’s best friend, but for veteran Jim Elder, his loyal companion became much more. Elder works as a clinical analyst at Moffitt Cancer Center alongside Zara, his service dog that has been trained to aid those with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Zara, a Belgian Malinois, first began her journey with Elder through the Rescue 22 Foundation in June of 2018.
The foundation is a nonprofit organization that addresses the staggering crisis of veteran suicide resulting from PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, and other physical and emotional trauma through individualized working dogs. Within this past year, the group has trained and placed 16 dogs with veterans at no cost to the dog owner. The rescued canines the foundation trains are working dog breeds that veteran families are usually familiar with to help make them more comfortable.
Veterans and Rescue 22 co-founders Erick Innis and John Devine both use their K-9 handling experience to train the dogs. At the Rescue 22 Foundation, training differs for every dog and can take up to a year and a half depending on their service. Zara spent about six months with them before she found her home with Elder.
Elder has PTSD and says Zara has dramatically changed his life. “The biggest thing with her, and it still amazes me to this day, is that she can sense if I’m having a bad day or if I’m having a flashback,” he said. “She’ll nudge me and be like, ‘Hey, crazy man, come back to us.’ ”
Elder and Zara visit the Rescue 22 Foundation as much as possible for regular refreshers in training and to volunteer. “I like to spread the word about Rescue 22 as much as possible,” said Elder. “A lot of guys need it and don’t have the resources or can’t afford it. Plain and simple.”
When Elder found out he was going to be gifted with Zara, he was nervous about the reaction from his coworkers. He was surprised at how well everyone at Moffitt quickly welcomed her, and says that she now is greeted by at least a dozen visitors a day.
Just because Zara is now with Elder full time, it doesn’t mean her training has stopped. “It never really stops,” said Elder. “The more time we spend together, the more you can tell she locks in on me or I can tell when she’s going to goof with me. By Fridays at 2 o’clock, I’ll hear her do the loudest stretch and that’s her saying, ‘Hey, I’ve had enough fun. Let’s go home.’ ”
And after a busy workweek, the weekends are reserved for Elder and Zara’s special scrambled egg Saturdays. Elder cooks the pair scrambled eggs for breakfast and adds turkey bacon if Zara is being a good girl.
The Rescue 22 Foundation creed is that no active duty or veteran sister or brother should ever stand alone. It’s a creed Elder and Zara live every day.
“Since the day I got Zara, she has never left my side.”