EXETER — Spc. Eric Rotharpt was funny, smart and friendly, his sister Beth Robbins said, but something changed after he returned from service with the U.S. Army in Iraq.
“He was easily startled, unapproachable and jumped when I tried to hug him,” she said of her late brother. “He couldn't handle the things he had seen."
Robbins founded Eric's Angels, an outreach ministry of Reformation Lutheran Church, to honor her brother's memory and support other veterans in various ways. She spoke Sunday, Nov. 10, during a service at the church, 3670 Perkiomen Ave.
Eric's Angels partnered with the Reiffton Fire Company Social Quarters, raising $15,000 for Tails of Valor, Paws of Honor: Service Dogs, a nonprofit organization for veterans.
Tails of Valor helps obtain and train service dogs for veterans.
Heather Lloyd, founder of the organization based in Coopersburg, Lehigh County, accepted the check earmarked for the training and care of an Australian shepherd pup to be named "Eric."
“The greatest casualty is being forgotten,” Lloyd said, explaining all dogs provided by the organization are named after deceased veterans as a way of memorializing them.
The terrors of the battlefield seemed to follow her brother home, Robbins said, noting Rotharpt began threatening suicide.
"For us as a family, we couldn't do anything,” she said. “We tried to get him help, but he definitely didn't get the help he needed.”
Rotharpt's struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder ended 10 years ago at age 24 when he was killed in a vehicle accident.
Robbins and their mother, Deborah Wieland, both of Exeter Township and members of the church, suspect his fatal crash was no accident.
Rotharpt is not the only veteran to have a severe struggle with PSTD, Robbins said, noting an average of 20 veterans committed suicide daily last year.
Specially trained service dogs can help alleviate some symptoms of PTSD by initiating tactile intervention (pressing close to their owners) during sensory overload, turning on lights and waking an owner during a night terror, searching the home to alleviate hypervigilance and performing other services or tasks.
"If we can help save even one vet from suicide," Robbins said, "we will have performed our mission."
Volunteer handlers Donna and David Roth of Allentown introduced the Exeter congregation to Marclee, an Australian shepherd puppy they are raising for Tails of Valor.
The couple said they hope to be chosen to raise Eric, the puppy to be named for Rotharpt when the pup is ready to leave its mother.
"We were hoping to do the service dog thing for a long time," Robbins said of Eric's Angels, "so this is a big deal for us."