When Jorel "Joe" Wester walked into a Oshkosh, Wisconsin, Firehouse Subs after work one day in 2017, he was going through a really hard time. He was struggling with mental health issues. He wasn't able to hold down a job for very long. Even going to school seemed impossible.
Life had changed entirely after he was medically discharged from the Coast Guard. At best, no one seemed to understand. At worst, they told him to just get over it. There seemed to be no way out.
He decided that unless the universe gave him some kind of sign, this sub was going to be his last meal.
"When you're in that mental state, the hole is dark and deep," Wester tells Military.com. "No matter where you stand, it's very difficult to see the light. No matter how much counseling and how much I talked about it, it never seemed to get better for me."
As he ate, he looked at the paper cup that held his beverage. Printed on the side was an ad for K9s For Warriors, a nonprofit organization that rescues dogs from shelters and trains them to become service animals for veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual assault trauma.
Wester decided that might be the sign he asked for. He finished his sub, but it wouldn't be his last.
Wester joined the Coast Guard in 2001, before the Sept. 11 attacks. The Coast Guard was almost a family tradition. His father served in the Coast Guard, just as his grandfather had. Wester loved it, especially the rough weather. He wanted to be in for 20 years.
"It was my first real experience with being in the ocean, and I kind of loved it," Wester says. "Even in some of the worst weather you can drive a boat in, I couldn't get enough of it."
He began his career in Ketchikan, Alaska, enforcing fisheries law. After a stint in Daytona Beach, Florida, doing counternarcotics work, he returned to the heavy weather, this time in Washington state. He was in a small accident during his time in Washington and was transferred to Rhode Island. It was there the Coast Guard sent him home with a medical discharge.
"The Coast Guard felt the need to discharge me," he says. "They sent me home and said, 'Thanks for your service, but you're broke.'"
That was in 2013. Wester had served for 12 years as a boatswain's mate in the roughest seas, but the next five years would be harder than anything he experienced in the Coast Guard. He was kicked out the front door, as he describes it.
"I felt lost," Wester recalls. "I kind of wandered around a little bit. I picked up a couple odds-and-ends jobs, but I found it really difficult to function. I was in a dark place almost all the time."
Physical problems and mental health issues plagued him. The military medical support he enjoyed in the Coast Guard all but evaporated when he became a veteran. He tried counseling with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Nothing helped. In November 2017, he walked into the Oshkosh Firehouse Subs with a plan to end his life.
That's where he gave K9s For Warriors, the nation's largest provider of service dogs for veterans, his last shot.
Wester called K9s For Warrior that night. They told him to apply for a dog and to continue his counseling until they could connect him with a service animal. Wester promised himself he would do his part and continued counseling. A few months later, K9s For Warriors was ready for him.
The nonprofit flew him down to Florida, which at the time was their only kennel for service dogs. He was expected to spend 30 days on the campus so K9s For Warriors could assess his needs and match him with the right dog, one that had been trained for up to eight months.
In January 2019, Wester was paired with a 50-pound Black Labrador named Betsy. His first night with Betsy didn't go as he imagined it would, but it would be exactly what he needed.
"I was still apprehensive," Wester says. "I thought I bit off more than I could chew. I didn't sleep well that night. At about 3 a.m., I got up and was like, 'I'm done with this.' I was ready to call it quits."
That's when Betsy hopped up onto the bed with Joe and climbed on top of his chest.
"We laid there for a little while," he recalled. "She did that for the first four or five days. Just kind of stayed with me, climbed on me to make sure that I kind of had the feeling that it was OK. And that I could go through it."
After that night, Wester's life changed. The people in his life got accustomed to Betsy. When he went to school, Betsy kept an eye out for him. She would insert herself between her veteran and anyone who came too close. By the end of 2020, he had bachelor's and master's degrees in mechanical engineering.
Soon, he got a job at Oshkosh Defense, makers of the Army's new Joint Light Tactical Vehicle (JLTV), designing assembly fixtures and tooling. Just like his time in class, Betsy goes to work with him, whether he has to be in the machinery room and on the production line.
"With Betsy, I am able to be as productive as I would've been when I was in the service," Wester says. "I don't have that hole chasing me. I don't have negative thoughts and things that creep in your periphery. She can intercept those things before they happen."
At home, he is less prone to anger, spends more time with his kids and can spend quality time with his wife without the same fears and emotions that kept him from holding a job. Betsy has blended right in with his family.
"At my darkest point, I wanted someone to tell me that this is not the end, that there are things out there, options and opportunities available to me," Wester says. "For me, Betsy was the one thing I didn't see until I sat down at that Firehouse Subs and saw the cup. I can 100% say that I would not be here had I not seen that."
To learn more about K9s For Warriors or to apply for a service dog trained for veterans with PTSD, traumatic brain injury or military sexual assault trauma, visit the K9s For Warriors website.
If you are a service member or veteran who needs help, it is available 24/7 at the Veterans and Military Crisis Line, 800-273-8255 or 988 (press 1), by texting 838255, or through the online chat function at www.veteranscrisisline.net.
-- Blake Stilwell can be reached at email@example.com. He can also be found on Twitter @blakestilwell or on Facebook.
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