My journey begins on November 11th, 2004. While getting ready to either go out on a mission or go to gate one where I was assigned as part of my duties as base security, my life was changed forever by a 107mm Chinese Rocket. I was a Marine serving in Mahmudiyah Iraq when I was hit. I sustained five different injuries from the back part of my right leg getting ripped off, to shrapnel chipping a bone in my lower back, taking the shell casing in my right shoulder, taking more shrapnel in my upper left arm, and in the midst of getting spun around I ripped off the back side of my left hand along with four of my wrist bones and a bone in my hand. I also live with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and a Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI).
I also thought that my injuries never had an expiration date on them. The pain I lived with was only going to get worse as I got older. The embarrassment I felt as a husband and dad was never going to go away. This is because there were times I needed assistance walking and climbing stairs. I wasn’t able to walk next to my wife because I drift when I walk. Little things like getting down on the floor to play puzzles or outside getting down to draw with chalk with the kids always had to be done with someone there to help me get back up or have a chair or something solid to help me get up off the floor. As a dad, I wish I could convey the feeling I had when my son asked someone else to put his shoe on because we were at a park and nothing was around us so I could do it. Going to the grocery store was limited unless my wife was there to help get items off the bottom shelf. Pots and pans in the kitchen were difficult to get unless I was holding on to the door and hoping it didn’t move as I got down and got back up again. Traveling through the airport and having people look at me weird because I asked to keep my shoes on so I did not have to bend down in an awkward way to pick them up. These are just some of the physical things I struggled with before I was placed with my service dog Festus.
In addition, the emotional and mental challenges I faced bore an even bigger toll not only on me but my marriage as well. I live with someone trying to kill me every day of my life. I do a threat assessment everywhere I go. Loud noises remind me of that day. Crowds, stuff on the side of the road, people coming up behind me, and going new places send me into anxiety and near panic attacks. What this led our family to is my wife would be on edge looking for things that triggered me. The most startling revelation to me was when she said she only had about 3 to 4 months out of the year with me where she felt I was doing well and she did not feel alone or on edge. Thunderstorms that would roll in led to her not getting the rest she needed because of my reactions and dreams. Holidays, like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, which are times of the year she loves, have become times of the year she now dreads and hates because of my PTSD and memories of getting hit. Going to work she was always worried about me being alone and falling, not being able to get back up or call for help. How could I take care of our son with my disabilities both physical and mental? God has blessed me with an amazing wife who doesn’t mind doing these things for me and helping me feel safe and secure.
On August 2012, I attended the Chicago Air and Water Show courtesy of Wounded Warrior Project. I met other Veterans who had service dogs and talking with them I begin to get a glimpse of what life might be like if I had one. When I got back home I talked to my wife, my therapist and psychologist at the Veterans Administration Hospital, and did a lot of research online about service dogs and service dog organizations. We finally decided on the Indiana Canine Assistant Network, or ICAN. It was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my life.
I submitted my application with trepidation and no expectations because I thought there was not much a dog could do for me. My thought process was if it worked out, then great, but if not, then all I did was waste some time. When Ann from ICAN showed up at the house and asked me what are my needs and wish list and we began going through things I would need she said, OK we can do that. This was the first time I got a glimpse and hope that I may just get my new normal back.
In early 2013, I got the call to go meet a possible service dog match at the Indiana Woman’s Prison. Sitting there with butterflies in my stomach, in walks this handsome red Labrador, named Festus, with his handler. I saw my new life walking toward me and even though I didn’t know how radically my life was going to be changed, I knew life was forever going to be changed for the better. I had hope for a better life for not only myself but most importantly for my family as well. It was also an answer to prayer because as a Marine I had a manly dog with a manly name. Can you imagine a Marine in his uniform saying come here Foo Foo or come here Lady?
Then we enter team training where we spend two weeks in the prison with the handlers learning all the commands and tweaking what specifically our individual needs are. Due to a previous family trip to Alaska to see our son who was stationed there, we missed the first week so I thought we would be behind the curve ball when we started. Festus and I were destined to be with each other. When we went to the mall to do our pre public access test, Festus was already checking doorways as we walked after only being together for three days! Also, when Festus and I began working on walking up and down stairs, it was like I was never injured.
It has been two years since I was paired up with Festus and all I can say is thank you for changing not only my life but my families as well. I had some idea what Festus was going to do for me like the command brace so I can stretch and get up and down off the floor, helping me walk, picking up my shoes or key’s, and protecting my back when we are out so no one can walk up behind me without me knowing it. What I had no idea was all of the hidden things Festus was going to bring into our lives. My pain level is down on a daily basis since I have had him. My family and I are able to spend more quality time together since getting Festus. Having PTSD I rather not deal with people but having a service dog I speak to more people when I go out in public. This has taught me that the world isn’t as scary as I thought it was. My wife still worries about me but a huge weight has been lifted from her because she knows I am finally safe alone whether I am at home or going out in public. I have more confidence in being a father and a dad because of Festus and I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart.
If you are a veteran and are interested in learning more about how a service dog may benefit you, please contact Sandi, ICAN’s Client Success Manager.