2016-05-13 / Front Page

Family follows through on veteran’s dream

Fund established to help place dogs with veterans with PTSD is exceeding goals
By Michael Kelley Staff Writer


Billy Lappin felt most at home in the company of dogs, such as Henry, who used to live next to Lappin in South Portland, and dreamed of training them to assist individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, but unfortunately died before seeing that dream become reality. (Courtesy photo) Billy Lappin felt most at home in the company of dogs, such as Henry, who used to live next to Lappin in South Portland, and dreamed of training them to assist individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, but unfortunately died before seeing that dream become reality. (Courtesy photo) United States Coast Guard veteran William Lappin, 41, was most at home in the company of dogs and dreamed of one day training them to provide to individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, but died of liver failure before he could get started with the project.

After Lappin’s passing last month at Maine Veterans Affair Medical Center in Augusta, his family, many who live in Scarborough, decided to honor his dream and raise money to help those organizations that provide service dogs to military veterans and others with PTSD.

The family originally set out to raise $3,000 for the cause, but as of early this week had raised nearly $15,000 through a page setup for Lappin on youcaring.com.


After a 15-year career in the Coast Guard, former South Portland resident Billy Lappin experienced first-hand the physical and emotional scars of military service and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and sought to help those in a similar position through service dogs. (Courtesy photo) After a 15-year career in the Coast Guard, former South Portland resident Billy Lappin experienced first-hand the physical and emotional scars of military service and experienced post-traumatic stress disorder and sought to help those in a similar position through service dogs. (Courtesy photo) “I never imagined this,” Lappin’s sister, Jennifer Gower, a Scarborough resident, said of the support. “I never imagined how many people are dealing with PTSD, whether it is a veteran or first responder.”

According to the United States Department of Veteran Affairs, 7 or 8 percent of U.S. citizens will have PTSD at some point in their lives and approximately 8 million people have PTSD during a given year. Lappin was one of those with PTSD.

Symptoms stem from traumatic events such as exposure to combat or terrorism, sexual or physical abuse, serious accidents or natural disasters and include feeling hopeless, shame or despair; increased drinking or drug use; physical pain or employment or relationship problems.

William Lappin, who lived on Mildred Road in South Portland, joined the Coast Guard shortly after graduating from Deering High School in Portland in 1992. He was discharged in 2009 after more than 15 years of service.

“He definitely had a love for the outdoors, the ocean and helping people,” Gower said.

He particularly enjoyed his time aboard the Coast Guard cutters Polar Star and Polar Sea and received a commendation in July 1996 from the San Francisco Fire Department for saving a hiker who had fallen into the water.

“He loved the Coast Guard,” said Lappin’s father, Al Lappin. “He really loved it.”

His service for his country, however, took a toll on William, who was known as Billy to friends and family, not only physically, but mentally as well.

Al said for three years while Billy was stationed in San Francisco, his job was to retrieve the bodies of individuals who made a suicide jump off the Golden Gate Bridge.

“That was what started a lot of his downfall,” Jennifer Gower said.

Lappin also served in Iraq as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the first time the Coast Guard was put into a war zone since the Vietnam War. The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs notes that 11 to 20 percent of those who served in Iraqi Freedom have PTSD in a given year.

Al said his son’s PTSD caused him to retreat and hole himself into his room, which led to heavy drinking.

Billy, Al said, “wouldn’t really talk about” his time in the military, except maybe with other military veterans.

“He was always a private person. As much as he wanted to help people and do things, he never wanted the attention on him,” Gower said, adding after her brother’s April 11 death, she and other family members heard from many men and women who served with Billy. She notes more than 500 people attended Billy’s wake.

All of Billy’s stress seemed to disappear, his family said, when he was around dogs, especially Henry, a dog that lived next door to him on Mildred Street.

“He was a whole different person when he was with a dog,” Al said.

“He was himself again,” Gower said, adding because his apartment building was close to the South Portland Greenbelt, Billy enjoyed taking Henry on frequent walks. It also overlooked the Fore River, where Billy was felt at home watching ships and boats come in and out of Portland Harbor.

After researching organizations that provide dogs to individuals with PTSD, Gower said her family decided to give some of the money to K9s on The Front Line, a Portland-based organization that does trainings in Gorham, Brunswick and soon Bangor.

“It is very amazing what they do with the dogs,” Gower said. “That’s why we asked to go up to Brunswick to see the training.”

The K9s on The Front Line organization stuck out, she said, because it uses dogs from local animal shelters, giving them a new lease on life.

“Billy would love to know he is not only helping save a human life, he is saving a dog’s life too,” Gower said.

Linda Murray, director of public relations for K9s on The Front Line, said the dogs are trained to respond to the veteran in a number of ways.

“They can be trained to wake their handler up from nightmares. They will sleep with them and when they see their handler twitch or move around, they will go right up to them and starting licking their face to bring them out of it,” Murray said.

The dogs accompany their handlers wherever they go, which helps with social interactions and help them break the cycle of mood swings.

“They serve as a social buffer for those people affected by PTSD and help their re-entry into society. It rebuilds their trust with the public because they have their dog there. A lot of time when people talk to them it is about their dog at first,” Murray said.

Since starting this fall, K9s on The Front Line has paired 20 veterans with service dogs. Most have come from shelters, but Murray said veterans can in some cases have their own dogs trained.

The organization works hard to make sure the dog and veteran are a good match and the veterans are very much involved in the training process, which is led by Portland Police K-9 officer Christian Stickney and involves K-9 officers from throughout the area.

Murray said the veterans are required to attend a 16-week training course and log additional hours of training before the dog is officially certified.

According to the organization’s website, through the program, veterans “previously crippled or suicidal by the effects of PTSD are gradually gaining their lives back, advancing their careers, bringing their families back from the brink of collapse and divorce, and becoming emotionally available to their children again.”

Gower said the goal of her family’s effort is to keep the money local and help a Coast Guard veteran if possible. There are plans, she added, to donate to other service dog training organizations and put on other fundraisers, including a possible 5K road race.

“If we can save someone’s life, not put someone through what Billy went through, complete his mission to train dogs, I’d think he’d be smiling down at us, saying thank you.”

Gower said even in her brother’s final days, he was able to maintain his sense of humor and his caring nature, joking with the nurses and making sure it was his family, not necessarily him, that was getting enough rest and food while he was in the hospital.

Aside from training service dogs, Gower said her brother also dreamed of returning to the Caribbean, where he was stationed at one point in his Coast Guard career. His family knew this was not possible, so they brought the Caribbean to Lappin with a big sun and fish decoration and Hawaiian leis.

To donate to the effort of the Lappin family, visit https://www.youcaring.com/william-c-lappin-bm1-coast-guard-555081.

Staff Writer Michael Kelley can be reached at news@scarboroughleader.com.

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