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Kindred spirits: Veteran and his service dog work together to combat postwar trauma

LITTLE ELM — There's a reason Lyndon Villone picked Ice to be his best friend.

The former U.S. Marine didn't know it then, but he had found a kindred spirit in the small, but loud, husky he adopted in 2011 in New York. 

"At the time when I was looking at him, I was sort of reclusive and isolating," Villone said on an sunny October afternoon as Ice sniffed around their yard in Little Elm, where they now live. "I picked the loner husky. He was out by himself underneath a table howling and I said, 'I want that dog.' What we learn about dogs is that they reflect our own image."

Villone knew that Ice couldn't make up for the recent loss of his brother in arms, but he did think the dog could help him move forward as he dealt with the aftermath of his service.

Before Ice came along, Villone had completed two tours in Fallujah, Iraq. From 2006 to 2008, he spent his days keeping supply routes clear and searching for hidden weapons and explosives. He also interacted with the locals, making sure they had the things they needed.

"We did a little bit of winning hearts and minds, and a little bit of finding the bad guy and making sure he went away," Villone said.

When he returned to civilian life in 2009, the New York native felt relieved.

"It was a sense of freedom at first," Villone said. "I didn't have to shave every day. I wasn't getting told what to do. It took about a year to realize the stuff that I was doing wasn't very healthy."

It wasn't long before his behavior began to change. He started getting nightmares and suffering from vertigo. People began talking about how different he was since he returned from war.

"The first time I heard that, it kind of rang a bell in my head," Villone said. "I realized that my world was crumbling around me."

His world would continue to crumble as grief crept its way into his life. In 2011, Villone's best friend and fellow Marine Sgt. Wesley Rice died in a training accident. Rice was able to save three Marines when an amphibious vehicle started to sink, but he couldn't save himself.

Wesley Rice, left, and Lyndon Villone, right, do push-ups next to each other in a training exercise.Courtesy photo
Wesley Rice, left, and Lyndon Villone, right, do push-ups next to each other in a training exercise.
Courtesy photo

Six days later, Villone got a puppy. He dropped the "R" from Rice and used the rest of the letters to name the husky in honor of his fallen brother: Ice.

But the transition wasn't seamless for the two.

"I was going to sell him at first because I was frustrated with life and I needed money," Villone said. "Then he grew on me as I went through a lot of pain."

The year Villone got Ice was the same year he was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It would take two more years, and six more funerals for close friends, for him to ask for help.

In 2013, Villone entered a veterans program that combined outdoor activities with group therapy. They would all go zip-lining or snowboarding together, then come back and talk about what was going on in their lives.

"I remember sitting in this room after an event and looking at all these pictures on the floor," Villone said. "We had to pick up two pictures that described our life. That was the first time I realized I wasn't alone."

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, between 11 percent and 20 percent of veterans who served in Iraq suffer from PTSD. Thousands more develop other mental health issues and substance abuse problems.

 If left untreated, those side effects can have grave consequences. The Department of Veterans Affairs estimates an average of 20 veterans die by suicide each day, a rate 22 percent higher than those who haven't served in the military.

Something sparked inside Villone that day at group therapy as he looked into the eyes of his fellow service members facing the same struggle. He decided that getting well again would be his new hobby and that Ice would join him on his road to recovery.

Lyndon Villone's dog Ice sits on the judge's table during the tricks contest at Dog Days of Denton on Oct. 7 at the North Texas Fairgrounds.DRC
Lyndon Villone's dog Ice sits on the judge's table during the tricks contest at Dog Days of Denton on Oct. 7 at the North Texas Fairgrounds.
DRC

The pair started training, and soon Ice was a certified therapy dog. Villone decided to take it a step further and train Ice to be his service dog.

Today, Ice knows how to "brace" so Villone can hold on to him when he gets a vertigo spell. Ice also knows how to "get close" when Villone has a panic attack and make sure they have plenty of space when walking through crowds.

"He's a very difficult dog and he's an independent breed," Villone said. "It's been frustrating, but at the other end of the frustrating stuff, it's been so rewarding that it cancels everything else out. When it's us doing our thing, that's my peace. That's my serenity. We can go for a walk and let the world melt away, shut off the phone and call it good."

Lyndon Villone poses for a photo with his dog Ice. Ice as crowned as the "Spokesdog" during Dog Days of Denton on Oct. 7.DRC
Lyndon Villone poses for a photo with his dog Ice. Ice as crowned as the "Spokesdog" during Dog Days of Denton on Oct. 7.
DRC

Villone had finally found a method that worked for him, but he was still searching for a purpose. He knew he needed to do something to help his fellow veterans. He knew he couldn't let anyone else from his military family be one of the 20 who died that day.

If he could heal himself, he thought, maybe he could heal others. He didn't know what that might look like yet, but he knew Ice would be along for the ride.

CAITLYN JONES can be reached at 940-566-6862.