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Helping to heal: Local Iraq War vet has something better than medicine

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Geoffrey Zehnacker of rural Detroit Lakes still has the twisted chunk of metal that saved his life when two buried artillery shells blew up in Iraq.

The chunk of metal, about the size of a cell phone, came from the exploding shells hitting a metal storage box that Zehnacker had just put on top of his armored Humvee, and it redirected the deadly shrapnel away from his head.

The Marine escaped the 2005 IED booby trap with a leg injury that has since healed, but he didn’t escape traumatic brain injury — from that explosion and a series of other events leading up to it over three rough months doing convoy protection duty in hostile western Iraq.

“A neuropsychologist concluded that I was probably in a concussed state for about three months,” he said. “I thought it was exhaustion at the time, but it turned out I was stacking concussion on top of concussion.”

The scope of his injuries only became apparent when Zehnacker, a military police officer, returned to convoy duty in Iraq four years later.

And those overwhelming symptoms threatened to sideline him with PTSD, anger, anxiety and panic attacks.

He worked through a lot of it with professional help, but he also got some unexpected help from a good friend of his – an 11-year-old hunting dog named Luke.

“I had Luke since he was 6 months old,” Zehnacker said. “When I retired in 2010 (after nearly 15 years in the Marine Corps) he became my service dog. He did great.”

Because Luke is getting up there in years, Zehnacker purchased and trained a younger service dog, also a Labrador retriever, named Betty. Now they share duties, with Luke only working on Thursdays.

Because of his injuries, Zehnacker, 38, suffers from absence seizures. “If my brain isn’t engaged, I’ll lose all sense of space and time, I’ll just be out,” he said.

It doesn’t happen in class or at the grocery store, for example, but could happen during the slow period between classes, causing him to miss the next class.

Zehnacker is a graduate student in the Human Development program at NDSU and is pursuing his PhD.

The dogs help prevent absence seizures by connecting with Zehnacker when they sense trouble.

At the first sign of panic or strong anxiety, the dogs pick up on the chemical reaction.

Luke is so good at his job he knows it before Zehnacker himself does.

“He’s proactive, he keeps them (episodes) from happening,” he said.

“Betty is still learning, and does her job by reacting to problems as they arise.

“They’ll nudge me, push me, pull me; they’ll do something to get my attention so I can’t drift away.”

Zehnacker much prefers to deal with his problems without using prescription tranquilizers or pain pills. The service dogs allow him to do that.

“With the dogs, I can be in class and deal with a panic or anxiety episode in 30 seconds,” Zehnacker said. Without them he would have to take prescription meds or step out of the classroom to calm down. “I have to deal with it there,” he said.

Zehnacker saw a lot of action in Iraq, serving there in 2004 and 2005, and again in 2009.

In the early years, especially 2005, the biggest part of the mission was to find the hidden mines and improvised explosive devices before insurgents could use them against passing U.S. troops.

July 6, 2005, “is when I got blown up,” he said. “We had to go through someone else’s area to get to where we worked. We hit two buried artillery shells,” that totaled their armored Humvee and left Zehnacker with shrapnel in his leg and, he found out later, the brain injury.

Luckily for the driver, Zehnacker, trying to deal with some back pain, had earlier removed a couple bolts and moved the seat back a few inches. The move saved the driver’s life, since the shrapnel would have hit his forehead.

“I’m a pretty religious person,” he said. “I tell people that back pain saved my life and somebody else’s.”

It was also fortunate for the occupants in the Humvee that the 152 mm shells were pointed the wrong way, directing most of the blast away from the intended target.

Service dogs have been so much help to Zehnacker that it’s no surprise that he wants to help other veterans with the similar problems.

He and his wife, Nancy, are active members of the Patriot Assistance Dogs program in Detroit Lakes. She is the treasurer and he is a board member.

They know first-hand how much difference a good service dog can make for a veteran.

“I think we’ve provided over 70 veterans with service dogs,” he said. “That’s 70 more participants in society. Before they were shackled – now they can get out and participate … every veteran we can get out there shows a success story, it shows people there is hope.”

Zehnacker is originally from Delaware and Nancy is from North Carolina, but they love Minnesota. They and their 9-year-old son live on a 6-acre hobby farm off County Road 25, with chickens, sheep and three happy dogs – the two service dogs and another black Lab.

The Patriot Assistance Dogs program serves veterans for free, so fundraising is important.

One of the group’s biggest fundraisers is the Tee it Up for the Troops golf tournament at Lakeview Golf Course on July 8.

“Everyone is welcome, it’s a come-one, come-all event,” said Jack Fay of Detroit Lakes, who is active with the Patriot Dogs program, “This is our fourth year, we’ve been averaging 10 teams, or about 40 people, but we’d like to fill up the golf course.”

Cost is $75 a head, which gets you 18 holes of golf and a golf cart for every two people. Sponsorships are available.

Several Wounded warriors will be there, as will veterans with their service dogs.

“Even if you’re not a golfer, come on out and join us,” Fay said. “There will be a speaker before the start of the tournament … come check out what we’ve got going on.”

Tee It Up for the Troops, Inc., is a national Minnesota-based non-profit organization that serves veterans and their families.

Established in 2005, it has hosted over 325 events in more than 30 states and has donated over $6 million to more than 300 various organizations serving veterans across the country.

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