How a service dog has helped SJ veteran recover from PTSD with 'unconditional love'

Lauren Martinez Image
Friday, May 26, 2023
How a service dog has helped SJ veteran recover from PTSD
Marine veteran Emilio Gallegos and his service dog Samson are being featured in a documentary about the daily struggles of living with PTSD and how their inseparable bond has helped lead to a path of healing.

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- A local veteran and his service dog are being featured in a documentary about the daily struggles of living with PTSD and how their inseparable bond helps lead to a path of healing.

San Jose native and Marine veteran Emilio Gallegos still has a piece of the Hummer he was driving when he nearly lost his life from an improvised explosive device. It happened on September 5th, 2008 while doing basic security in Iraq.

His injuries included lacerations on his arm and his right fibula broke.

TAKE ACTION: Get help with mental health issues

Gallegos said had he not been near a surgical center he would've lost his leg.

When Gallegos returned to the States he described his medical care as impersonal. He was placed in a barracks room by himself, sometimes left to get food himself.

"Three weeks or so I would have to hobble to get food there's a little market like a half mile away with crutches," Gallegos said.

During his first month back, the feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and separation grew.

"The care and concern people have for one another I didn't feel like I was getting especially from somewhere you feel like you should get it," Gallegos said. "Like these are my brothers, I would literally die for you but you can't give me a ride to my appointment?"

MORE: Veterans raise their voices in SF, showing off the healing power of music

Veterans lifted their voices in San Francisco Sunday afternoon at Calvary Presbyterian Church in celebration of the healing power of music and poetry.

With PTSD, writing poetry gave Gallegos something to cling to.

"It saved my life right, it gave me somewhere to put these emotions and feelings productively instead of drinking until I pass out -till my heart stops racing so fast or going to the gym for hours to lose that feeling right," Gallegos said.

Years after suggested inpatient programs and anxiety medications that were unsuccessful - the South Bay program Operation Freedom Paws introduced Samson, a rescue dog, to Gallegos.

"I don't know his traumas, past traumas, and he doesn't know my past traumas but we're two beings that are kind of messed up in a sense and experienced trauma," Gallegos said.

For the past seven years, Samson and Gallegos have been inseparable. They graduate together, they do everyday errands like going to the gym together.

"It's good to have someone to give you unconditional love and a place where you can give that unconditional love back," Gallegos said.

Samson's presence has created a space where strangers come up to the pair and share past stories of the military or a past story of vulnerability.

MORE: Walnut Creek animal rescue ARF has a new program to pair veterans with dogs for free

"It eases the tension and I consistently experience people telling me these things and I'm fortunate because of Samson," Gallegos said.

Gallegos and Samson are being featured in a documentary called By My Side.

The film profiles three veteran families struggling with PTSD and how service dogs create a journey to heal.

"I didn't know until the documentary came out like- to hear my daughter say like I was really scared to be around my dad," Gallegos said.

Gallegos said creating the film was a cathartic experience and allowed his family to have conversations together they never had before.

MORE: How rescue horses in Texas are helping veterans cope with issues like PTSD

At this therapy program for veterans, the horses find their forever homes and their partners find a best friend for life. ❤🐴

Gallegos hopes this documentary provides a platform for greater conversations to happen around mental health.

"It's acknowledging there are times where we're all going to need help, regardless of what our life path is: veteran, non-veteran, mother, father, son," Gallegos said.

He encourages everyone to find constructive coping mechanisms.

"Just because you failed once doesn't mean you could never succeed again," Gallegos said.

To Gallegos, Samson is his bridge back to success.

"It's good to know, and not just remind yourself, but live in it daily that -oh, I'm capable of receiving love from someone right, I am capable of that," Gallegos said.

The documentary By My Side was directed by San Francisco resident Vicki Topaz. Last Friday the film had its world premiere in San Diego. Topaz encourages anyone to visit their website or follow them on social media for the next screening.

Topaz is currently looking for new locations to host a screening for the public.

Now Streaming 24/7 Click Here

If you're on the ABC7 News app, click here to watch live