05/01/2012 11:57 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2012

Service Dogs Help Vets Battle PTSD When Meds Can't

Donna Bachler's brother was a veteran who struggled with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

"Darrin took his own life rather than struggle to seek help in the VA system as it existed," says Donna. "He fought a stigma of doubt over his condition."

Donna, herself an Army veteran, knows firsthand what Darrin and so many other veterans wrestle with as they battle PTSD. She experiences it herself every day.

"Like my brother crying for help," she says, "some would rather die than deal with PTSD."

The numbers are staggering: The Army alone reported 242 suspected suicides in 2009 and 305 in 2010. Through November 2011, there were 260 suspected Army suicides among active-duty and reserve soldiers.

"You can't see PTSD, but it's always there," says Donna. "I fight it the best I can, but I'm always on guard in a crowded environment, always hyper vigilant, uncomfortable of the unknown."

With her mind racing, never really relaxing, Donna suffers from crippling sleep deprivation.

She has gone through numerous sleep studies. In one of these studies, of the six hours she was required to stay in the bed, she "slept" for 90 minutes. In that period of time, she woke up 207 times.

"The toll it takes on your mind and body is incalculable," Donna says. "There comes a point when you simply pass out from exhaustion."

Her VA doctor's solution for Donna: Pills. Donna rattles off more than a half dozen medications she was prescribed, none of them working for her. "They're just bandaids for the symptoms, and they never address the real underlying problem."

While Vet Center counselors or VA talk therapy has helped some warriors, Donna lost confidence in the VA. She got treatment in the community through TRICARE, but particularly credits a trained psychiatric service dog for her improved well-being.

"Grapefruit is my lifeline to the outside world," she said. "Some days I wouldn't be able to leave the house without him. He's trained to be attuned to my stress level, helps create distance between us and people out in public, checks behind us, and simply helps calm me."

And it's working. Donna now takes only half the prescription medicine she took before, and while still not sleeping a full night, she does get in some rest.

And she can't help wondering: What if Darrin had had access to a helper? Or the hundreds of men and women who took their own lives this year -- could they still be alive?

"Community integration programs need to be a focus at the VA and need to be expanded. Support for spouses dealing with a warrior's issues needs to be addressed. I know my husband wants to help me, but he has no idea how. I can't help him either."

Donna is dedicated to working with Wounded Warrior Project on behalf of all Wounded Warriors to ensure they get the mental health services they need. She sums it all up with this question: How many more will suffer and possibly be driven to taking drastic measures before real change is made?