In the instant he learned about the lifeless body of a boy hanging in the center of an Iraqi village in July 2004, Johnny Dawson resolved there was no God.

A few years later, after his honorable discharge from the Marine Corps in June 2007 and while struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder as a student at the Ohio State University, Dawson was so despondent that he was contemplating suicide.

He was saved, he said, only by his German shepherd, Rocky, whom he knew needed him.

"Rocky was my lifeline," he said.

Dawson would receive a second lifeline from his future wife, Borah, whose repeated pleas -- some gentle and some direct -- were persuasive enough to get him through the doors of Cypress Wesleyan Church on Alton Darby Creek Road in Galloway in February 2011.

Today, Dawson, 31, is a Hilliard business owner, and through his renewed faith and a desire to reach out to the veteran community, especially those with PTSD, he is trying to be on the other end of the lifelines he once received.

To do so, he founded the Military Connection Group at Cypress Wesleyan Church. The 12-week Bible study focuses on the spiritual effects of PTSD and how the word of God can be can be used to overcome feelings of numbness and isolation associated with PTSD, he said.

Defining PTSD

Chris Nemeth, owner and CEO of Nemeth Counseling and Consultation, 5123 Norwich St. in Hilliard, said PTSD stems from exposure to an event that threatens one's life or a near-death experience, either real or perceived.

"Even if an unloaded gun were pointed at you," he said, it can cause PTSD.

"These experiences often play back as nightmares and a person is sensitive to anything associated with it," Nemeth said.

Typical symptoms are insomnia, as well as sudden and intense anger or other emotions in reaction to something seen or heard, he said.

Some studies also have drawn links between PTSD and suicide.

Studies the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' National Center for PTSD has compiled indicate seven or eight of every 100 people in the U.S. population would have PTSD at some point in their lives. According to the center's website, that figure is higher for military veterans depending on their service era.

For Operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, 11 to 20 of every 100 veterans have PTSD in a given year, according to the National Center for PTSD, while 12 out of every 100 Gulf War veterans have PTSD in a given year. The figures for Vietnam War veterans are even harder to quantify, with 15 out of every 100 diagnosed with PTSD at the time of a study in the late 1980s. The center estimates that 30 percent of all Vietnam Veterans have had PTSD in their lifetimes.

It is difficult to quantify the frequency and effects of PTSD in the veteran community because so few speak of their experiences, Nemeth said.

"There are too, too many veterans like me," said Dawson, who hopes his personal experience and ability to "be on the same level" as veterans with PTSD will persuade them to find peace through faith.

He even created a workbook for the session that he sent to select religious leaders throughout the country with the hope it would be implemented elsewhere.

The power of personal experience

Nemeth said Dawson, even without clinical training in PTSD counseling, offers one thing many other practitioners cannot: personal experience with PTSD.

"Johnny has the ability to help people in a unique and significant way because he is a veteran. He can connect with (PTSD patients) in a way so many other providers cannot," said Nemeth, who met Dawson through the Rotary Club of Hilliard.

Nemeth said each month, his Hilliard clinic schedules about 1,200 appointments, about 40 percent of which are PTSD-related.

But only about 10 percent of his PTSD patients are veterans, he said.

Much of the balance are police officers, firefighters or civilians who witnessed or experienced a near-death event or other trauma, real or perceived, that led to PTSD.

"It's hard to get a veteran through the door," Nemeth said.

Many develop detrimental coping skills such as substance abuse or promiscuity that usually take six to 12 months to manifest after, in the case of veterans, a return to a safe environment.

"A typical reaction is to wall it up and not talk about it, to tell yourself you are over it when you aren't," Nemeth said.

Dawson's story

Dawson thought he was over it.

But the boy's hanging in 2004 stayed with him.

He was about 10, the age of his oldest son today.

The boy regularly herded sheep near an observation post at a forward operating base in Hit, Iraq, overlooking the Euphrates River. He looked like he had something important to share and did -- he led Dawson's team to one of the largest weapons caches in the Al Anbar province at that time.

"We felt great that we took some very dangerous weapons and IED-making materials off the hands of our enemy," Dawson said.

It was a fleeting moment of hope.

Dawson said he already had begun to become "numb to life and death" since arriving in the Middle East.

He left for boot camp at Parris Island, South Carolina, the same night he graduated from Circleville High School on June 8, 2003.

After graduating as a squad leader at Parris Island, Dawson advanced to the School of Infantry at Camp Pendleton, California, where he graduated in the top 1 percent of his class, he said.

Eight months after graduating from high school and still only 19 years old, Dawson told his mother he was being deployed to Iraq as a member of the 2nd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division; he soon was promoted to lance corporal.

He embraced religion soon after.

"I recall one night a Navy chaplain came by our tent and asked if anyone wanted to be baptized," Dawson said.

That night, he climbed into the back of a Humvee bearing a tarp filled with water and was baptized.

"The chaplain gave me a pocket-sized, camouflaged Bible that I kept inside my flak jacket at all times," Dawson said. "I would tell my team to make sure we prayed before every meal and every mission, because either one could be our last."

But as the causalities in his unit mounted, Dawson said, he saw a change in himself and a distancing from God, which became a chasm when he learned of the boy hanged in the middle of the city, evidently for the crime of helping the Americans.

"I was emotionless, I didn't know what joy or love was any longer," he said. "It made me a great Marine but a terrible friend. I see that child every day."

Dawson served in Fallujah, where he was injured and then underwent surgery for the placement of pins in his wrist and arm. He was honorably discharged after the injury.

After coming home, he said, he turned to alcohol and had trouble maintaining relationships while at Ohio State until Borah persuaded him to attend Cypress Wesleyan Church in February 2011.

In the meantime, after interning with the U.S. Secret Service, Dawson turned down a job with the FBI to focus on raising his family.

He and Borah married in September 2012 and have three sons ages 10, 4 and 2. They live in Hilliard.

In June 2013, he opened an Edwards Jones office in Hilliard, where he is a financial adviser.

"Everything was perfect," Dawson said.

But then he began learning about members of his unit who had committed suicide.

"I was receiving calls on a monthly basis of another Marine who had committed suicide. ... We now have the highest suicide rate in all the military," said Dawson, referring to the "2/7," or the 2nd battalion, 7th Marines.

Connecting with others

After learning of the deaths, Dawson began working with Ken Murphy, a Cypress Wesleyan pastor, to establish the Military Connection Group.

About 35 to 40 people participated in first the 12-week Bible study course in the spring, and among them was 29-year-old Gabriel Hoy, 29, who attended Westland High School and later earned his GED.

Hoy, an Army veteran who served 12 months in Iraq in 2009 and 2010 in the 82nd Airborne Division, was invited by a friend to Cypress Wesleyan Church, where he learned about the Military Connection Group.

"It impressed me that a church recognized it," Hoy said.

He said he did not lose his belief in God but rather did not believe he deserved God's love.

"I was trained to kill. ... I was embracing evil. Why would God want me?" said Hoy, admitting he got into "trouble with drugs" after returning home.

"I felt there was a roadblock (to God) when I was in the military ... but Johnny has opened a lot of doors for me. I read the Bible and I pray every morning and I go to church on Sunday. ... I feel accepted and loved by God."

Hoy said he plans to attend the next 12-week session, which begins at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 20, at Cypress Wesleyan Church, 377 Alton Darby Creek Road, and will be held each Tuesday evening thereafter.

The class is free to attend and will be on Cypress's website at cypresschurch.tv.

Anyone who feels suicidal or wants to seek treatment for PTSD can call Franklin County Suicide Prevention Services, a program of North Central Mental Health Services, at 614-221-5445. Veterans also may call the Veterans Crisis Line of the National Center for PTSD at 800-273-8255.

kcorvo@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekCorvo