How a cup's message and a dog saved a Wisconsin veteran's life
OSHKOSH, Wis. (CBS 58) -- Life took a dangerous turn for one local veteran after he was medically discharged from the Coast Guard. He opens up about how a soda cup saved his life and united him with his fur-ever pal.
"I wasn't in the Army or the Marine Corps, I wasn't getting shot at, I wasn't blown up--I drove a boat, how could it happen to me? It shouldn't happen to me," said Jorel Wester.
Wester served in the U.S. Coast Guard for nearly 12 years.
"I was the one who pulled you out of the water, I was the one who towed your boat back to shore," he said. "I really felt like I was making a difference."
Wester said rescuing and recovering people lost at sea was his duty.
"I got a chance to learn how to drive a 47-foot motor surfboard; this is like the Corvette of the Coast Guard," he explained. "It can go out in anything: 35-foot seas, 50-50 knots of wind; this is the boat you take when, when it's really bad, when you need to tow a big ship back, when you have to be out there for 14 hours."
His job allowed Wester to explore some of nature's hidden wonders.
"I've had some very unique food, stuff I'd never... stuff dug out of the ground and we ate....things like this that you never get a chance to see, Walrus hal-outs, sea lions, whales," he added.
But it also led Wester down a dark path.
"Probably one of the worst times of my life," he said.
Wester was sent to Florida in 2005 to deal with the death and destruction left behind by Hurricane Katrina. Knocking on people's doors and offering any type of assistance.
"These two gentlemen got into a fight, got into an argument and he shot the guy over a bottle of water, and I had free water on my boat, and they refused it," Wester said, still, in disbelief. "It was one of those shocking moments, like, I can't believe I just saw that."
Wester said the situation transitioned from helping people, to recovering bodies.
"It was hot, it was muggy, flies everywhere," he recalled. "There was less and less 'I need this, I need that,' and 'grandma passed away and, you know, little baby passed away.'"
And those difficult experiences stuck with him. Wester's mental health was beginning to take a toll.
"We didn't really talk about feelings, we didn't talk about, you know, your mental condition or your mental state; I know a lot of people that turned to alcohol very fast," he added.
Time went on, and thoughts and emotions that piled on, were cast aside. He said he didn't want the military to think he was incapable of doing his job. But one day, he pushed the limit.
I got (into) an accident; I pushed the boat a little too hard and it rolled over, it's a knock down, it lies really, really hard on its side and I hit my head real bad, one of my crewmembers broke his leg, one of the guys that I pulled off a boat was washed off the boat," he said.
In 2012, he was medically discharged from the Coast Guard, and he and his family moved to Wisconsin to be closer to his wife's family.
Wester said life became mundane. He couldn't keep a job for too long and he was in denial--he had post-traumatic stress disorder.
Fast forward to 2017, when Wester told CBS 58 he felt like there was no escape.
"I was ready to end my life," he said. "On my way to work the next day I grabbed the pistol that I had in my closet, drove to work, left work early because I convinced myself I didn't have anything to do."
Wester was hungry and made a pit stop at Firehouse Subs--a decision that would change the course of his life, forever.
"I picked up my drink and on the side of the drink there's an advertisement for K9s for Warriors," Wester explained.
The nation's largest provider of service dogs for veterans.
"I sat there with a pistol in my hand and called, I called the K9s...the guy in charge of the whole company picks up the phone and I explained where I was, and what I was doing, and he was more concerned about me being safe," Wester said. "I unloaded my pistol and then threw it in the passenger seat...I broke down crying, sobbing; I mean, the emotional release was something I'd never felt before."
Wester decided to seek help. And in 2019, the nonprofit flew him down to Jacksonville, Florida in hopes of matching with a forever friend.
"You stay there, they pay for you to stay in their facility, you get a credit card for food," he said.
After filling out a pretty lengthy document, he was paired with a black labrador named Betsy.
"They call me forward and they said 'this is Betsy, she is your forever companion, she'll watch out for you as long as you watch out for her,'" Wester recalled.
He, alongside other vets who were also dealing with lingering mental health issues, stayed on the campus for 30 days.
"The rest of the time there is not to teach the dog, it's to teach the warrior how to handle the dog and that is probably the most intense thing I've ever... that I've ever been through," he said. "They said, 'ok, every day we're going to get on a bus and we're going to go somewhere else, so you're going to walk around and you're going to put yourself in a situation where you're going to have to use your dog and we're going to teach you how to use your dog to help bring down that anxiety and that stress level.'"
It's been four years of Betsy accompanying Wester everywhere, and he acknowledged it's a support system he didn't know he needed.
"I know that, like that family that I had on the boat, the people that watched my back and I watched their back...she's always there," Wester said.