Sgt. Matthew Morres couldn't escape the sense that he had lost a piece of himself when he first returned home from Afghanistan.
After an explosion broke his back and left him with traumatic brain injury, he was told he would have to be medically retired.
"When they told me, 'Sgt. Morres, you're not going to be a Marine anymore — I can't describe the feeling,'" he said.
"Imagine being told that you're not you anymore. It's something that is crushing: emotionally, morally — everything."
The aftershocks of war haunted his daily life.
In the weeks after his return, he said, "I would get up from my couch and then not realize how I got to my kitchen. I would think crazy things and I didn't understand why it was happening."
It was a dog that ultimately helped him regain his sense of self.
Morres started working with Warrior Canine Connection, a Boyds-based nonprofit that teaches veterans how to train service dogs for fellow veterans. The program itself is a form of therapy.
"They brought me back from out of the dark and from thinking that I didn't have a purpose anymore," Morres said. "There's still a way I can serve my country and my community — and I can make a difference."
Morres shared his story in Annapolis last month to explain why he supports legislation from state Sen. Bryan Simonaire that would create a partnership between nonprofits and the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, with the goal of helping connect more veterans to therapy dog programs.
The Senate unanimously passed the measure Friday, and it is now headed for a hearing in the House of Delegates.
Simonaire, R-Pasadena, said he decided to propose the bill after learning that more than 100 Maryland veterans commit suicide annually. Nationwide, the suicide rate among veterans is 20 deaths a day.
"That shocked me when I heard that," he said. "This is unacceptable, and we must do more to prevent this tragedy."
Senate Bill 441 establishes the Maryland Veterans Service Animals Program within the Department of Veterans Affairs. The program would help identify and pair veterans with therapy dog programs. It would also create a funding mechanism that could accept state and private money to support those programs.
Rick Yount, the founder and executive director of Warrior Canine Connection, said the state agency's connections would greatly boost outreach efforts.
"There's hundreds of thousands of veterans in the country and tens of thousands in the state of Maryland that need our help, and it's a huge problem — and the only way that we're going to make a significant dent in this problem is through a collaborative effort," he said. "No nonprofit by themselves can do this; we have waiting lists for years."
Simonaire said he's in talks with Gov. Larry Hogan to see if he will commit money in his budget to kick-starting the program this year.
Retired Capt. Robert Coffman, a former Navy psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, or TBI, said the country is likely to see more veterans suffering from those conditions as they age and retire.
"We haven't even seen the extent in this nation of what the rates of PTSD and TBI are going to be," he said.
"It's really going to take a whole tool bag of modalities to heal the invisible wounds of war."