You can hear it in her voice.
You can see it in her body language.
It doesn’t take long to understand and feel the passion in April Gettys. Her life revolves around helping people, especially our nations military veterans and active duty service members.
April is President and founder of Midnight Sun Service Dogs (MSSD) which is a 100% volunteer 501c3 non-profit organization that trains and places service dogs, therapy, facility and companion dogs with veterans and active duty service members. MSSD specializes in training service dogs to help veterans and active duty service members living with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
When talking with April it becomes very clear just how passionate she is on the subject of PTSD. And, for good reason. April is a survivor of domestic abuse from a prior relationship. April related that she was diagnosed with PTSD and had a traumatic brain injury (TBI) which is how her relationship with training service dogs all began.
In 2010 while working as a cosmetologist, April and her children purchased a puppy. “I’ve been a cosmetologist since I was 15 years old. I owned various businesses and enjoyed dogs and had pets. I had no clue what a service dog was until Sir Duke came into the picture,” related April.
It was veterinarian Dr. Riley Wilson who identified Sir Duke, a Goldendoodle, as a good fit to be a service dog. Earlier, April had taken the dog to Wilson thinking something was terribly wrong because Sir Duke would just sit and stare at her not moving. Sir Duke was only eight weeks old at the time. It was later discovered April was low on blood sugar and having an anxiety attack and did not realize it but Sir Duke did. After that, April started looking into service dogs and what they were all about. Due in part with her own issues with PTSD April felt she could not trust anyone else training a dog for her, she trained Sir Duke herself. As her interest grew, she traveled to the lower 48 and trained with nationally renowned dog trainer, Cesar Milan, to learn dog psychology.
A new beginning
April reflected back, “I figured, hey, I got to this point. This was a year and a half fast forward from when I got Sir Duke. I thought, I know business, why not start a non-profit. I can’t work in any place where there are chemicals or a lot of physical lifting. Why not be able to give back to our veterans and do what I always wanted to do, which was to serve my country.” And that’s what she did. With the help of her husband, recently retired U.S. Air Force Officer, Blake Gettys, Midnight Sun Service Dogs officially started September 22, 2011.
Not the typical training
Many service dog training organizations will train a dog to perform the required tasks necessary to be a service dog. Then once trained, deliver the dog to the veteran or person with the disability. Additionally, many of those organizations purchase dogs from breeders. MSSD are mostly rescues according to April. She described it this way, “All of our dogs are either rescues from throughout the United States or donated by breeders.” Adding, there are many civic organizations such as the Lions Club, various motorcycle clubs, the American Legion and That Others May Live Foundation that will donate money to purchase a particular dog, but no donated money to MSSD is used.” April made a point by adding, “There are too many good rescue dogs that need to be placed, it’s a win, win all the way around!”
April decided on a different approach to training the dogs and the handlers, one she felt was much more comprehensive. Once the dog and the handler are selected as a good match, they are paired up as a team. When asked where the teams train, she replied, “Everywhere. So, we have to take into consideration not only the person’s disability but where they might go on a daily basis for their entire lifespan. We have to try and hit those points in training.” Citing examples, “We go to the park, sporting events, grocery stores, home improvement stores, clothing stores, movie theaters, music events, schools, hockey rinks, that’s a big one up here, airports, banks, most anywhere a person might go in their lifetime. We need to get the dogs and the person familiar with those places.”
April added another reason the training is done out in public, “People that have PTSD, anxiety, TBI, it’s really hard to get out in public. So, we’re forcing the human to go with the K-9 out into a place they really don’t want to be.” At the conclusion of the training session, April tells the handlers, “I want everyone to think about what we did today. Look at where you are, look at what you accomplished. You’re breathing and you’re fine. You made it through, you have that strength and never forget that.”
Adding with a smile and a chuckle, “It’s nothing for us to have 15 people walking through one of our local stores with their dogs and people looking at us like, is this dog show day? Noooo…. We’re training these dogs to help these people. The last thing we want is to place a dog with somebody and not have them prepared.”
Additionally, April was adamant on another important point of her business plan. MSSD is all volunteer. Talking with conviction, “The reason why I made the organization 100% volunteer is I wanted the people that come into the organization to do this because it is a passion, not because it’s a job. And, it does make a big difference.”
April reached out to other service dog training organizations when initially organizing her business. April related the response she received, “When I approached other service dog organizations in the beginning and laid my platform out, every single one of them said there is no way this is going to work. You’re not going to last three years. And, we still going and going…. Strong.”
Not your typical day
“You have to remember, I have four adult sons, two grandchildren, and a husband, that up until recently, was a General in the United State Air Force. So, on top of all of that, I also have 78 clients that are active and another 650 past clients.” Continuing, with a bit of laughter, “So, a typical day for me is…. never typical,” says April.
When pressed to tell me more, April said with a bit of a smile “I get up in the morning, I have to have my coffee! And, as I’m drinking my coffee, I turn my phone on and the phone calls start.” Much of the morning is consumed by answering people’s questions regarding service dogs and eligibility rules, conducting interviews with both veterans and active duty servicemen. Fielding calls from stranded Airman with dogs, that didn’t get the proper paperwork to travel across the country. She also holds classes and one on one training with her clients. Adding, “Then, we always have 4-5 hours of training with dogs, many of them are at our home.” Adding with a chuckle, “The Gettys’ household sometimes can have 17 dogs running around the house at one time. I might be able to eat a meal once or twice a day, that’s not an exaggeration!” Continuing, “Some days I travel out of state to go train with my active duty squadrons, there’s just no typical day, I may get to bed around 11:00p -12:00a. After a brief pause, a tone of seriousness was in her voice, “My phone is always on because disabilities, you know, just don’t happen during the day. I may get called to the emergency room because a veteran is having a meltdown or, dealing with the inevitable, the passing of a service dog and that’s never easy. I’m just there for the people.”
As with other non-profits, MSSD faces several challenges to stay operating. There is no cost to the veteran or service member for a service dog or the training. It’s all free of charge to them. It is a continuing process to network with the animal rescue organizations and breeders to make sure they have enough qualified dogs. Also, this all takes time. April feels sometimes there are just not enough hours in a day to get it all done. Making the point, April said, “Without a challenge, you’re not going to have a success. One of our most common challenges the organization has is fundraising. But, by God’s glory, we’re always able to have the money at some point. We may have $100.00 in our account, and we may need to take 10 dogs to the veterinarian for their check-ups, and by golly that money will come in.” With a bit of sadness in her voice, she added, “The other challenge is making sure that we’re able to place a dog with our veteran before it’s too late. My goal for our organization is not to lose a veteran that has reached out for help.”
Another challenge that April made a point of mentioning is has having a service dog is hard. It’s as easy and fun as many people she talks to believe. She explains many veterans tell her having a service dog is like having a baby, there are so many things to take into consideration. “It’s really hard, having a service dog is not easy. There is so much you have to stay on top of all the time. Especially these dogs that deploy with one of our squadrons. We have to learn how to give our dogs a break, learn how to let them have their downtime. Once a dog becomes a service dog and its working, it’s working 24 hours a day,” explains April.
When talking about the rewarding aspects of working with veterans and training service dogs, April’s eyes filled with tears. After pausing to take a deep breath and wiping away a tear on her cheek with the back of her hand, she said with emotion in her voice, “The most rewarding part of this, it’s two pieces. One, is when I’m out in public and I see a team that has been through the program and they’re out living their life… still on this earth. That’s really important because a lot of the men and women that have come to me have already tried to commit suicide. And, for whatever reason God felt fit for them to stay on this earth.” Taking another deep breath, continued, “The other rewarding part of this is when I get calls from the family members that thank our organization for putting a smile on their son or daughter’s face for the first time since they went to war or giving their Mom or Dad back to the family simply because we took the time to train a dog with them. I thank God every day that he saw fit for me to go all my trials and misfortunes … all my struggles in my life lead me to be able to do this. It’s allowed me to relate to people in a way that I otherwise would not have been able to relate to. And, to bring that famous number of 22 veterans a day that commit suicide, we’re gonna bring that number down because that’s totally unacceptable, there shouldn’t be any….. that’s the most rewarding part.”
Editors Note: For more information on volunteering, donating, or finding out if you qualify for a service dog, please visit the Midnight Service Dogs website at www.midnightsunservicedogs.com