It took Williamsburg native Jason Haag 10 years to face the shadow of post-traumatic stress disorder that had taken over his life.
The Marine's nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks and severe depression weren't being controlled by the more than 30 prescriptions he took every day. He'd wash the medication down with alcohol, trying to erase the fear and pain from three tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Since being shot and surviving an RPG missile explosion that left him deaf in one ear, Haag suffers from PTSD, a chronic mental health disorder that develops after a terrifying ordeal that involves physical harm or the threat of physical harm.
In 2012, Haag's life changed when he met a 2-year-old German shepherd named Axel from a national organization, K-9s for Warriors, the retired Marine Captain told a group of Marines and their family members Saturday during a celebration of the military branches' birthday hosted by Williamsburg Area Marines.
"Axel hit the reset button for me, and gave me the desire to stop using prescription medications," Haag said. "He saved my life."
Haag is one of more than two million veterans of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan nationwide diagnosed with PTSD, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Thousands of others may have the disorder, but like Haag, did not immediately seek treatment because of the stigma surrounding PTSD, branding suffers as "weak," and fears that asking for help may end their military careers.
Haag told the retired Marines group that his service dog helped him face the horrors he'd seen, and deal with them. "I'm sure I don't have to tell you guys what that's like," Haag said, as some of the gathered Marines, many combat veterans, nodded in agreement.
After training with Axel and bringing him home, Haag said his life began to change. Instead of shying away from time with his wife and high-school sweetheart, Elizabeth, and their three children, he slowly started to rejoin them.
He also began working with K-9s for Warriors, helping them raise PTSD awareness and bring healing service animals to veterans of post-Sept. 11 wars.
Saturday's dinner also featured a visual reminder of U.S. Marines who didn't make it home with the Missing Marine table, a ceremonial place setting. Many of the Marines at the party stopped by the table for a few seconds to pay their respects.
Williamsburg Area Marines also recognized the groups youngest Marine, a 20-year-old in the honor guard who presented arms and flags to begin the celebration, and the oldest — two retired Marines in their 90s — 91 and 94, respectively.
U.S. Marines reservist Joseph Bornschien brought his high school-aged son, Will, to the annual birthday party. Bornschien had been to several celebrations, but Saturday was Will's first.
The teen said he was impressed by the retired Marines, and by Haag, who he said was brave to share his story and struggles.
Will Bornschien plans a military career, like his father, but in the U.S. Air Force, the Jamestown High School freshman said.
Reach Canty at (757) 345-2341.