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University of Missouri

An Army of Two

With his dog’s help, a veteran works through law school.

Shawn Lee

Service dog Jack goes to law school with U.S. Army Iraq and Afghanistan war veteran Shawn Lee. Photo by Nicholas Benner.

Jack is a 9-year-old black Labrador retriever who dutifully accompanies his U.S. Army veteran owner throughout daily life as a law student. He’s also a charming ambassador who can brighten any room with a wag and a lick.

In 2010, when Shawn Lee returned from Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress disorder, his prescribed drug cocktail of seizure medication, mood stabilizers, pain pills and a sleeping aid severely impaired day-to-day function. Discouraged by the daze, Lee opted to forgo most of the drugs, instead seeking psychotherapy and use of a service dog.

“When you walk up and see a friendly Lab, there’s always a smile,” says Lee, who struggles with anxiety in social situations. “He creates a positive environment and makes interactions with people pleasant, and for someone who has problems interacting with people, that’s a great tool.”

But Jack, who was trained at Fort Campbell in Tennessee, isn’t just a cute, furry friend. If Lee has a seizure, as he did in spring 2014, Jack “goes off like a car alarm.” His barking attracts help, and the tags on his collar contain Lee’s medical information, including blood type and current medical dosage. Jack also knows to keep Lee’s 6-year-old daughter away from Dad should a seizure render him erratic or violent.

Of course, violence is nothing new to Lee, who served two tours. In 2008, his scout platoon in Iraq spent much of its time looking for explosives. Lee’s unit in Afghanistan is the subject of the documentary film The Hornet’s Nest released in May 2014.

Lee’s goal as a lawyer is to represent his brothers in arms who struggle with service-connected disabilities.

“Three members of my former sniper squad in Iraq have attempted suicide,” Lee says. “Somewhere around 22 veterans per day kill themselves, and that’s higher than the combat death rate in Iraq. If we keep on this course, we’ll lose more veterans to suicide in 2014 than we will in both the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.”