“Stepping up to the first tee box, we have LaWanna Viers, out of the Air Force, and service dog Corey, out of a high-kill shelter in North Carolina.”
Those weren’t the exact words from the starter at the 2018 AT&T Byron Nelson in Dallas, Texas, but the military veteran and her service canine certainly did receive a warm welcome at the first hole before setting off on an 18-hole leash-in-hand walk with PGA TOUR pros John Merrick, Eric Axley and Blayne Barber.
A dog on the golf course? You bet, and there was no need to let this one “play through.” Viers and Corey were making history by becoming the first veteran-canine team to walk inside the ropes with professional golfers as honorary observers.
“It’s probably the most exciting thing I’ve done. It’s medicinal for me because I like to travel and do things I’ve never done,” Viers said.
The experience was made possible thanks to the AT&T Byron Nelson and Stryker, which donated $20,000 to K9s For Warriors, an organization that makes a double rescue. They pull dogs out of shelters and turn them into service canines for post-9/11 military veterans suffering from PTSD, traumatic brain injury and/or military sexual trauma.
The non-profit helped pair Viers with Corey in 2015 after her post-war anxiety and depression reached levels that made daily living difficult.
In 2009, Viers deployed to Iraq for eight months to work with security forces “outside the wire.” During her stint overseas, a motor vehicle accident left her with a spinal cord injury, two bad knees and a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
“When I came home, everything was so fast-paced. It wasn’t like war but, in my mind, it was like I was [still] there,” Viers explained. “Every day, I was fighting the thoughts and the nightmares, so I basically shut down. I isolated myself and became a hermit for almost five years. When I found K9s For Warriors and Corey, all that changed.”
The specific catalyst for the retired first sergeant acquiring her cost-free “new best friend?” A panic attack that occurred while waiting for a doctor to call her name at a VA hospital.
“There was a veteran sitting nearby with his service dog, and he allowed his service dog to come over and calm me,” Viers explained.
That’s when her doctor suggested K9s For Warriors, which then took the lead and spent 13 months looking for and training the perfect dog for Viers.
“Corey’s command for when people get in my personal space is ‘Block,’ Viers said. “But when I see those cute guys, I tell her it’s not time to block.”
Joking aside, Corey has some big responsibilities on the other end of that leash since PTSD can’t be seen by the naked eye, and it can be triggered at any given moment in time.
“I’m constantly scanning the room. Before I entered this building, I knew where the entrance and the exit was, and how to make a hole in case nothing was there. I don’t like loud noises, like cars backfiring. That stuff reminds me of my accident and when it all began…I have panic attacks and I have survivor’s guilt,” Viers explained. “Thank God I have Corey. She keeps me cool as a cucumber.”
The special mutt allows Viers to live “in the moment,” which is especially helpful when she’s on the brink of a PTSD flashback.
“One of the things PTSD does to you is it causes you to drift off in your thoughts. You go back to wars and you have hallucinations,” Viers said. “But because of Corey, if I have a flashback, she may tug on this leash, and she brings me back, so I can engage with people and be present.”
According to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 22 veterans take their life every day, and the risk of suicide for veterans is 21 percent higher when compared to civilian adults.
“I think I found my purpose,” Viers said. “We all go through things in life and you don’t know where they’re going to lead you, but I realize I do have a voice and I want to use it to help other veterans and give them hope. PTSD is a condition you can manage. You can live with it and you can have a full life.”
As for the duo’s time walking the course at Trinity Forest Golf Club? It was tail-wagging good (and full of water bowl stops).