09/13/2011 09:27 am ET | Updated Nov 12, 2011

Post-9/11 Wounded Veteran Finds 'Giving Back' Is Path To Healing

This story is part of the "The Impact of 9/12," series, which focuses on those who were inspired to give back after the tragedies of September 11, 2001.

Shortly before Thanksgiving in 2004, a battleship-gray, twin-bladed CH-47 Chinook helicopter packed with U.S. troops lifted off from al Asad Air Base in western Iraq and flew east over the desert toward Baghdad International Airport. Aboard was Phil Bauer, a cavalry scout with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. He was on his way home for a few precious days of leave from his 12-month combat tour.

As the helicopter neared the city of Fallujah, bursts of fire erupted from that insurgent stronghold and the chopper went down hard and crashed in flames. Bauer found himself alive and conscious, but trapped in the flaming wreckage, frantically pulling at his legs that were crushed under twisted smoking metal.

Sixteen soldiers trapped with him were dead.

When Bauer's left boot melted away from the heat, he was able to wriggle one leg loose, but he was still pinned and unable to get out.

It was two hours before rescuers arrived and managed to pry the wreckage apart to gently extract him. In a medical coma, Bauer was flown to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., where he spent the next eight months in acute care.

But the severe wounds that Bauer and thousands of other military personnel have suffered since 9/11 often need more than medical care. What he discovered, almost too late, was that true healing came not from isolating himself and focusing on his own wounds, but from plunging back into service.

For six years, Bauer struggled with the pain of his amputated right leg and with the emotional storms and scars of his near-death experience, until he found happiness with a golden retriever he named Reece.

"I had a complete and total mental breakdown, my marriage finally failed completely. I hated myself,'' he said. "Because of my injuries I was not really able to cope well, or even put up a good front of coping. It seemed like everything I was doing was failing.''

He was working with the Wounded Warrior Project when someone referred him to East Coast Assistance Dogs, a nonprofit that trains and provides working dogs to the disabled. In two weeks of training at ECAD to work with Reece, he said he learned more about coping with stress and anger, and more about patience, than in all of the PTSD therapy he'd received over the past few years.

With his new dog, Bauer moved back home to Rochester, N.Y. "But something was still missing,'' he said. "I tried remembering the last time I was really happy and proud of what I was doing -- and it was back at ECAD.'' Helping others learn to train dogs, he found, really helped himself.

With a fellowship grant from a veterans nonprofit organization called The Mission Continues, Bauer worked for seven months at ECAD, helping to train and manage service dogs. He said he found it was especially rewarding to help disadvantaged and troubled teens learn to train the dogs. He was so good at it that he was hired full-time at ECAD at the end of his fellowship, helping at-risk teens learn the patience and discipline to train service dogs.

But for Bauer, this was more than just a job: it was a lifeline.

"If it hadn't been for ECAD and the fellowship from The Mission Continues, I'd probably still be sitting at home doing nothing, feeling sorry for myself,'' he said.

The Mission Continues, which made his new life possible, was founded in 2007 by a former Navy Seal, Eric Greitens, who realized that wounded warriors serving after 9/11 often lacked the opportunity to give back and become engaged again in service. As part of its work, the organization awards fellowships to give wounded veterans the opportunity to work with nonprofit service groups.

The fellowships, which provide post-9/11 wounded veterans a living stipend for 28 weeks, are intended to help ease the transition from isolation and despair to community participation. More than half of the 155 veterans who have received such fellowships had been treated for traumatic brain injury and 64 percent had screened positive for post traumatic stress disorder. More than one quarter had been treated for depression.

A recent study by Washington University's Center for Social Development found that 86 percent of veterans who had received fellowships viewed them as a "positive life-changing'' experience. While not all have found permanent jobs after their service work, 86 percent have landed civilian jobs in which they can use their military skills of leadership and service, according to the study.

The dogs trained at ECAD help the disabled by picking up dropped objects, opening and closing doors, helping their owners cope with stress and even reminding them to take their medications. The dogs learn as many as 80 different commands.

"I use him to turn lights on and off for me,'' Bauer said. "I always keep his treats by my desk, where I keep my meds, and in the morning we have a ritual, we go over to my desk and he gets a treat and I get my meds.'' In a crowded room, Reece can sense when Bauer is starting to become stressed out, and will tug at him until he leaves.

When he started working with troubled teens, Bauer found they had something powerful in common: a lack of trust. "They've never had a reason to trust anyone in their lives, so you have to get the student to buy into you and trust you and that's hard for a lot of them,'' he said. "In a lot of ways, I see similarities with me, and that helps me to be able to talk to them."

"I have so much to offer,'' he added. "And giving back is an incredibly powerful way of giving you a sense of purpose.''

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