This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of The VetDogs Sentinel, Vol. 12 No. 2, our newsletter. To sign up for The VetDogs Sentinel , please click here.
In 2015, America’s VetDogs expanded the community it serves to include first responders with work-related disabilities. These men and women serve their communities by being the first to render aid in times of crisis such as accidents, natural disasters, or terrorist attacks. There is never a charge to veterans and first responders for their service dogs and training.
From an early age, Megan Shacklett knew she wanted to dedicate her life to serving others. “I come from a long line of veterans and first responders,” she says. The concept of helping others and being of service was strong within the family: her grandfather served during World War II; her father was an Army veteran who later became a fire¬fighter; and an uncle and cousin were firefighters.
“I was exposed to the life of the fire department and EMS [emergency medical service] early on,” she says. “I loved it.”
When she was 14, Shacklett joined the Explorer program in her community. These pro¬grams are designed to foster a sense of community service among teenagers and young people. Under the guidance of fire and EMS experts, students get hands-on experience while learning about the different careers within these professions.
“It was really a wonderful program to be involved with,” she remembers. “It built a foundation and gave me great exposure to [the career] I would ultimately wind up in.”
Finding her life’s work
At the age of 18, Shacklett began her professional career in EMS as an emergency medical technician (EMT). EMTs are trained to recognize life-threatening situations and provide assistance at the scene of an emergency. But Shacklett didn’t intend to stop there: she wanted to become a paramedic. “Paramedics are in charge of the scene itself and direct patient care,” she says. “So ultimately being able to do more for patients was what I wanted to do.”
She recalls paramedic school: “The level of intensity is incredibly stressful. Your life is on hold. You have to be completely committed to the process.” She pauses and then laughs. “If anyone says they went through paramedic school and it was a breeze, they’re lying.”
After their classroom work, future paramedics practice their clinical skills in a hospital setting before undertaking a field internship. Then candidates must pass a national certification test and be licensed by the state in which they live.
Shacklett served as a paramedic in California and in Detroit, Michigan. “It was crazy fun, very challenging,” she recalls. “I always worked in high-impacted areas, meaning impoverished or violent communities.”
In California, the county she worked in “was so big that we had everything from city to rural response areas,” she says. “The varied experiences you have in your career help you to be a better provider. It was just something that made sense to me.”
Shacklett was always ready to share her experience and expertise with rookies because it “was something I always enjoyed. Knowing how to navigate certain things is very important.”
Although the burnout rate for EMTs and paramedics is high, Shacklett spent 23 years in the field. It was not a job she was ready to leave, but fate decided otherwise.
“On my last shift, I incurred an injury with an incredibly violent patient, which subsequently ended my career,” she says. It was “horrendously difficult” and had a huge impact on her identity.
“I had worn a uniform and knew what was expected for so many years. I had shared moments with people in their most tragic days and also in gratitude where the presence of myself and my amazing team of coworkers made a difference.”
Now, however, “I couldn’t wear the uniform anymore and I was trying to find out my purpose now in life. What was my identity? How was I relevant?”
Forging a new path
Shacklett decided to begin a new life away from Michigan and relocated to Texas. She realized she was also coping with post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and was determined to deal with it. Having seen a therapist after her mother died, she knew how beneficial therapy could be.
During her days in EMS, Shacklett made sure she was available to talk with coworkers when they need¬ed, especially if they were dealing with an especially stressful situation. To this day, “I still get calls from old coworkers if they’ve had a bad call or something they’re struggling with. If someone needs to talk at 3 in the morning, I pick up the phone.”
It is this empathy that prompts the question: Has she ever thought of becoming a professional counselor?
“That was actually my goal before I got into a car accident this past September,” she answers. “My ultimate goal is to be in a position where I can help other first responders and veterans.”
As a result of the accident, “I incurred a traumatic brain injury and other injuries,” she says, and she’s had several surgeries since. “I’m still in the process of recovering.”
While school is currently on hold, Shacklett is still finding ways to help veterans and first responders through financial coaching. She is a master level financial coach and runs Frontline Coaching Services. She believes that reducing financial stress helps to have a positive impact on mental health.
A new constant companion
Years ago, Shacklett was seeing a counselor who sug¬gested she might benefit from a service dog. However, at the time, she found that in many instances, the dogs were earmarked for veterans only and there was no training offered. “Plus, the cost was exorbitant,” she says, “so I gave up.”
A few years later, she once again searched “service dogs for first responders,” and America’s VetDogs was at the top of the results. “I read the first few words [on the website], and I started to cry.” She remembers thinking: “Did I just find the right place?”
The next day, she spoke with someone in the con¬sumer services office and soon submitted her application for her own service dog. In 2019, Shacklett got the call she had been waiting for. She was invited to September 2019 class, and “I couldn’t have been happier.”
Training was more physically challenging than she had expected. “The different ways your body has to adjust to working with a dog is surprising,” she recalls. She laughs: “My legs were so sore.” Her instructor explained to her it was because of the way they had to start and stop to ensure that the leash was in the correct position or to make sure the sequence of commands for a task was in the proper order. He reassured her that she wasn’t alone.
“As we could start to see the progression of things and become more natural, now I could see why we had to take those first steps,” she says. “When it started to come together, it became more exciting.”
Shacklett’s service dog has been perform nightmare interruption; “rest” (where the dog rests its head on its handler’s leg to calm them); make eye contact to help reduce anxiety; and retrieve items.
Shacklett arrived at the VetDogs campus “with a completely open mind and open heart to the process,” she says. “I thought I was just going to get my dog, but the beautiful thing that happened was the relation¬ships that I formed during class. I walked away with a whole new group of brothers. My classmates were some of the most amazing men I’ve ever met in my life. I experienced such a deep level of healing on so many levels by going through this process with those particular individuals.” To this day, they keep in touch with one another.
“Before I got my dog, there were times I wouldn’t leave my house,” Shacklett says. “Now I can go out and do things. I know it’s going to be OK. With her, every day there’s a reason to wake up."