"I told everyone that I wanted to be 'fixed.' I just wanted to be me again," said Jamie Benjamin, Army veteran, single parent, and caretaker to her chronically-ill mother.
"The old Jamie was left in Afghanistan."
Before deploying to Afghanistan in 2012 as a religious affairs specialist, family members would say Jamie was full of zeal and had a zest for life. Upon return to United States soil in 2013, she barely recognized herself.
“I’d look at photos of myself, and my eyes were literally black. I normally had light brown eyes, but there was only darkness when I looked at them.”
Through a winding road filled with sacrifice and struggle, Jamie eventually found healing in a K9s For Warriors Service Dog named Deacon.
Growing Up Quick
Growing up in New Jersey, Jamie excelled in school and was active in sports and social extracurriculars. She was always extremely close with her mother, and the two developed a special bond.
“My mother and I always had a great relationship,” Jamie said. “She made sure we had green on St. Patrick’s Day and beautiful pastel Easter outfits.”
When Jamie found herself pregnant and alone at age 14, right before entering high school, her world turned upside down.
“At that time, teenage pregnancy was extremely frowned upon. I was a statistic,” said Jamie.
“When I started visibly showing, I was made to go to an alternative school. The work was not as difficult there, and the mindset was ‘show up, and stay out of sight.’”
Jamie persevered, fighting the odds, graduating in 1990 and immediately entering the workforce, landing a job in sales. She found herself hustling three jobs, pulling late nights and early mornings in order to care for her daughter.
“I worked hard and tried to be a provider,” said Jamie. “I always had a job, but as a single parent, it was never enough.”
Diligence and perseverance paid off, though, leading Jamie to purchase her first home at age 25. She started her own business in 2005 with dreams of a wildly successful shoe store.
“To me, when something is supposed to happen, God will arrange everything the way it’s supposed to be for you.”
Her store flourished, but Jamie still longed for more.
An Unlikely Army Enlistment
“At that point, I’d always wanted to join the military, but the stars never aligned.”
Many military branches require single parents to forfeit custody of their children, and that was not an option in Jamie’s mind, whose whole world revolved around her daughter.
“I had dedicated my entire life to my daughter. I didn’t date much, and I didn’t go out because I wanted her to have a present mother.”
In 2007, Jamie met a recruiter, and two weeks later, she was on her way to Columbia, South Carolina, for basic training with hopes of running her shoe store from afar.
Her pathway to the military was an uncommon one. As a woman in her late 30s, she was surrounded by team members not too much older than her daughter.
It was disorienting at first, but Jamie flourished as a religious affairs specialist in the Army. She provided support to the chaplain and organized all religious services and events, including retreats and worship ceremonies.
For Jamie, though, everything would change once she was deployed to Afghanistan.
Nothing Could Prepare Her
Prior to deployment, she learned to care for fallen soldiers, preparing the deceased for final moments with loved ones. She trained overnight in San Antonio hospitals to brace for grueling shifts overseas, but nothing would prepare her for Afghanistan.
Once deployed, Jamie and her team were tasked with operating Rogue 3 — the hospital with the brigade in Kandahar. She was always first to respond. She organized and managed ramp ceremonies in which fallen soldiers were placed in flag-covered caskets to transport them back home to loved ones.
She was surrounded by death on the daily.
The mortuary affairs team and I became good friends.
The mortuary affairs team and I became good friends,” recounted Jamie.
“We were doing these ceremonies twice a week. Some of the kids who were dying were my daughter’s age.”
To this day, Jamie is still haunted by those memories.
“I think that’s why I don’t do funerals very well now,” Jamie said. “When we’d go to sporting games, and they’d do the national anthem, I’d feel those feelings all over again.”
American symbols took on new meaning for Jamie after her experiences overseas.
“Visually, whenever I picture the American flag, my brain immediately jumps to it draped over a casket,” said Jamie.
Visually, whenever I picture the American flag, my brain immediately jumps to it draped over a casket.
She was a shoulder to lean on for many, constantly taking on soldiers’ burdens. She’d listen to their stories, their struggles and conflictions in order to prepare her chaplain for visits.
“You had to hold it in and take care of everyone. It was hard, and that’s why I think the after-effects came,” said Jamie. “Eventually, it must come out.”
In Afghanistan, she accompanied her chaplain to many dangerous areas, including nine-hour drives in convoys to support troops. For Jamie, it was always an unknown destination, and danger was ever-looming.
“You’re in an enclosed area, and I think that had an effect on me upon my return.”
The Breakdown was Coming
Upon return from her nine-month deployment, Jamie immediately knew something was different.
Once able to navigate streets and interpret directions with ease, Jamie would spend hours driving her local neighborhood lost and confused.
“When I got back, I couldn’t remember how to get places. I would get anxiety and hyperventilate.”
“The first day I got home was July 21, 2013,” said Jamie. “The breakdown was coming — inexplicably, I was crying for no reason. I felt like something wasn’t coming out right.”
Plagued by months of suppressed grief and haunted by countless tragic deaths, Jamie could no longer keep it together.
“You are not mentally ready — it takes a while to get back.”
After many months of struggling to adjust on her own, Jamie started seeing a psychiatrist and taking medications for her symptoms, but the effects from trauma persisted.
“I wasn’t eating, and the medicine had me gaining weight. After some time of struggling, they decided to medically board me out.”
K9s For Warriors: A Weight Lifted
Jamie retired in March of 2016 and discovered K9s For Warriors online while seeking resources for similarly suffering veterans. After filling out the application in 2018, Jamie was still skeptical that a dog could ease her symptoms — until she met a black lab named Deacon.
The day she was paired with her new Service Dog, Jamie was filled with emotion.
“I didn’t know whether to laugh, cry, or jump in excitement,” said Jamie. “I felt like a weight was lifted off of me when he came into my life.”
Jamie and Deacon spent three weeks on the K9s For Warriors campus, training and learning each others’ personalities and quirks. They were building a bond like no other.
During her time training, Jamie found herself opening up to the female veterans on campus, and she could see sparks of her old self slowly returning. At graduation, Jamie felt nervous to return home but confident in her partnership with Deacon.
On Cloud Nine
Once they arrived home, it was as though a switch flipped for Jamie.
“With Deacon by my side, I felt untouchable — I was on cloud nine.”
Jamie’s daughter, Kayonnia, said she’s seen an overwhelmingly positive change in her mother.
“Deacon has calmed my mother — he’s changed her for the better,” said Kayonnia. “She’s now able to cope with her PTSD, anxiety and stress.”
The two now travel everywhere together, taking trips to theme parks, restaurants, and traveling on planes. Jamie dreams of taking Deacon abroad.
“Deacon is my shadow. When I move, he moves. When I go to the bathroom at 2 a.m., Deacon is right there following me, laying by the door,” said Jamie.
“I used to check the windows and lock the doors, and now he helps me feel comfortable in my own home.”
Now, with Deacon by her side, the light has returned to Jamie’s eyes, and life will never be the same.
Jamie & Deacon’s Graduation Date
Frank & Tamara Laprade
Named after the Demon Deacons, the Wake Forest University mascot
Deacon’s Rescue Shelter
Lake City Humane
If you are a veteran suffering from PTSD, TBI and/or MST, apply for a K9s For Warriors Service Dog today.