Saturday, October 25, 2014

She rescued Me:A memoir of a military veteran and her extraordinary dog

Picture courtesy of  Fading Sky Studios  

I will always remember the day I got my dog. It was December 27, 2010. I woke up one morning the day before Christmas and had this overwhelming feeling to go to the shelter and rescue a dog. Christmas was on a Saturday that year, so I had to wait until Monday to go. When I got to MCACC, I remember walking straight through the front lobby and past the first group of dogs to the door closer to the cats. I made a B-line to the kennel my girl was being held in, like I knew where I was going. She was about half way down the aisle on the left side. Her name was “Sierra”. As soon as I saw her I knew. The problem was, there was no one around to help me so I grabbed every scrap of paper on the outside of her kennel, told her I would be right back and ran out to find someone. It turned out, that my girl was a “Dog of the day” and was on special for only $35. The whole adoption process took somewhere around 3 hours, which was kind of… to be expected. The first day MCACC was open after Christmas, they were pretty busy. After her rabies shot, I got her in my truck and as I was getting ready to leave, she put her head in my lap. That was it. From that moment on she had my heart.

I immediately took her to get groomed because the poor thing smelled atrocious. It was the groomer who told me she had just been fixed and that her stitched were oozing.  I had no idea that she had recently been fixed because I didn’t recall seeing it on her paper work and she was extremely emaciated and skin was covering the area. It wasn’t until I got her home and was taking pictures of her that I realized how sick she was. She was so skinny, you could see every vertebrae and every rib. Her skin hung on her like it was way too big for her body and she was also very lethargic and wouldn’t eat. I got her into the vet the next day. I was told she had survived distemper (she was missing several layers of enamel on her teeth), had kennel cough and needed surgery immediately to fix her stitches because the site was infected.
Once I got her home I didn’t make her where the cone of shame for very long. She didn’t need it because she never messed with her stitches. It was like she knew better and her sense of appreciation was palpable. 

It’s important that you also know that this time was kind of a transitional phase in my life. I had been out of the United States Navy for two years now and had recently moved back in with my dad while I pursued school. The previous year (December 2009), I had moved to South West Florida to take care of my grandmother who had Alzheimer’s. According to state law, she was too healthy to be put in a facility but still needed looking after. My aunt and uncle lived down there but they had mortgages, families and careers, so it made sense as a member of the family who wasn’t tied down anywhere to live with and take care of her. I took most of my classes online and one class at the local community college, which was less than two miles from her house. I should also mention that at that time, my uncle was helping me through the lengthy and confusing process of filing a disability claim with the Veterans Administration. (My previous attempt had been declined by the VA because I had no idea what I was doing.)

 Out of the blue, during my last week of classes, I was on my way home from school and was t-boned in intersection while attempting to make a left-hand turn. My car was totaled, but I wasn’t seriously injured, however, I was pretty shaken up. My car was hit so hard that I passed out as I was trying to get out of my vehicle to help the other driver. I had a few broken ribs, a torn ligament in my knee, a horrible seatbelt bruise and a few cuts on my head, face and shoulders but otherwise, ok. Luckily for me, my uncle worked for the sheriff’s dept. and was notified by responding officers. Everything went back to normal after a few days of convalescence and by the grace of God I passed all of my classes. It was also during this time that I was trying to get a part time job. Unfortunately, despite recent honorable separation from the military, because I was a 20-something with no college degree, the job market down there was bad. At the time, I was a Biology major and had been out several times to the state parks and nature preserves to help clean up the beaches after the BP oil spill in the gulf of Mexico. I had applied for a job at Wiggins Pass State Park which seemed very promising, but I never heard back from them. Then one night in late June my grandmother fell and broke her pelvis. This awful event turned out to be the key to getting her the full time care she required in an assisted living facility. Since I was no longer needed to care for her and was unable to get a job, I flew my dad out from AZ to help me drive my moving truck home. Literally an hour before we were due to leave I got a call from the head honcho at Wiggins Pass State Park. They apologized for the delay in responding but that they had checked out my résumé and wanted to know when I could start.  I explained that I was moving back to AZ that day and very regretfully declined my dream job. I needed fresh air so I decided to go outside and check the mail box. Remember that VA claim I was suffering through? There it was, stuffed into the mailbox: confirmation and approval of my disability claim for PTSD, back and knee problems.  The only stipulation to my claim was that the VA diagnosed me with anxiety and major depressive disorder instead of PTSD. I was in tears all the way up the west coast of Florida.

Once I arrived home, I felt like fish out of water but I continued to pursue school. I got a work-study job with my college, working in the veteran’s office. I even continued to pursue my dream job to study protected and endangered animals. The month before I felt that calling to go to the pound and get my new dog, there was a job fair at my school and I had a couple interviews with the National Forest Service for the position of Wildlife Technician. I was then told I would hear back from them in about 60 – 90 days. Ninety-two days later I received the call from the head Wildlife Biologist in Bridgeport, California welcoming me aboard. I had been hired for a student summer seasonal position as a wildlife technician.

In May 2011, I left my sweet girl with my dad to embark on one of the most heinous adventures of my life deep in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Long story short: it was my dream job. I hiked every day. I studied protected and endangered species. I took about a million pictures. I educated campers on bears and the importance of locking up their food when unattended. Then, toward the end of June I got sick; really sick. I lost 20 lbs. in about two weeks and was admitted to the ER twice for severe dehydration but they couldn’t figure out what was making me sick. Again, reluctantly I resigned from my dream job after only 2 months. 

Because I had driven my own truck up there, my dad flew into Reno in order to help me drive back. Since we were so close to Yosemite Nat’l Park, we decided to add a day to the trip back and drive through the park. As we were driving through the park we would pull off the road every so often to take pictures. Well, the last time we pulled off the road I heard a “ka-chunk” noise. My dad, who was driving at the time looked at me bewildered and ask me to confirm that he hadn’t hit any rocks. I told him I didn’t think so but would get out and look. To my horror, I discovered that my front left tire was no longer attached to my truck. Cell phones didn’t work where we were so we flagged down a couple motorists and ask them to send a Park Ranger. Several hours later my truck was towed out of the park to the tiny but charming mountain town of Lee Vining, CA. There was a small hotel, a coffee shop, 3 restaurants, a bookstore and a gas station which also doubled as the resident mechanic. Let me tell you, it paid to be a mechanic in that town. It was the closest thing to civilization for at least 100 miles in any direction. The gas station my truck was towed to was conveniently stationed right across the street from our hotel. That extra day added to our trip turned into a week. The mechanic had trouble getting the part. It was a pleasant stay however, kind of a retreat. I was sick, after all, so a week convalescing in a comfortable hotel room, in a beautiful mountain town wasn’t the worst thing that could happen. Eventually though, I got my truck back and we proceeded home. We did, however, try again and successfully make it through Yosemite National Park in less than a day the second time around. We even made it back to Phoenix from that point on without a hitch where my girl was patiently waiting for me. 

I was very sick for several months after returning home but my girl stuck by my side every step of the way. By this time I had undergone several types of treatment for my PTSD but nothing seemed to work. It seems to me that I may have seen an article in the City of Chandler newspaper about service dogs, but to be honest, I don’t really remember where I came up with the idea to train my dog to be a service dog. There wasn’t much information in 2011 about how a person who was not blind or deaf went about getting or training a service dog but I eventually found a group called dogs4vets that helped me get started in the process of training my dog. Due to lack of funding at this time and because the group did not yet have a permanent facility the group tended to move around a lot (fiesta mall to sun lakes activity center-approximately 20 miles apart) which made training difficult to attend at times. To make things worse, the training didn’t really seem to be going anywhere. I would ask about the Canine Good Citizen test which is the first step in attaining service dog certification but nobody seemed to be able to tell me much. I eventually and reluctantly stopped attending classes but I did continue training at home.

 Sierra and I moved out on our own mid 2012; I continued to work toward my degree and search for a way to get my dog certified. I knew there was another organization locally called Soldier’s Best Friend but I was somewhat discouraged because it seemed like I had to climb a mountain only to eventually end up on a long waiting list for approval.   At this point they were still a somewhat fledgling organization. I was apprehensive at first because I didn't know much about them and they required a PTSD diagnosis which I didn’t have. I decided to take a chance and pursue it anyway. At this point my dog was already so well trained that I was taking her to all of my doctor’s appointments as well as some of my evening classes.

To her credit, Sierra had figured out how to wake me up when I had nightmares and was better than any medicine the VA could give me. She had a way of bringing me back down to earth and focusing on her when I had panic attacks. She even helped me make friends.

Finally, in the spring of 2013 I got a call from the folks at Soldier’s Best Friend. They wanted to meet with me and my dog for an assessment. We had our appointment. They were very nice and seemed impressed but then I didn’t hear from them again for several months. I was really hoping my dog could walk with me for graduation in May but it didn’t happen. All was not lost however, because my then boyfriend and I had gotten engaged. We married in November and as a bonus I finally got the call to start Sierra’s classes. I was also back in classes to pursue a new major. Unfortunately, it was around this time that I became ill again. After several visits to the ER I eventually just dropped out of all my college classes. On top of that my landlord was trying to evict us for some crazy old wiring issues in our house. I was physically and mentally defeated by the time Sierra’s classes were supposed to start in December. 

We got off to a rough start in the program. I missed a lot of classes. Eventually our trainer Jo warned me about being dropped. It was at this point I broke down and told Jo everything. She immediately changed completely in my eyes from the seemingly militant instructor to the compassionate mentor. She suggested that we take a break until after the holidays and pick things up in the New Year.

It is difficult to explain what PTSD is like because I am still trying to figure it out. Why things that happened so very long ago affect me now the way they do, I a not sure I will ever understand. But the fact is that they do and I have to figure out a way to cope with it. Sierra helps me do this. By training and building a relationship with this dog I have relearned how to build relationships with people again. I should mention that a lot of this had to do with the people involved in our amazing service dog organization  Soldier's Best Friend. It started with her wonderful trainers, then the other veterans and their dogs and went on from there.

By January 2014, we were in a new place and ready to pursue all things service dog related. Sierra and I attended group classes on Mondays and private lessons on Wednesdays and practiced on our own several times per week. She went everywhere with me in her harness which sported a highly visible patch which stated that she was officially a “Service Dog in Training”. By March, she had passed her Canine Good Citizen test, by June she was officially adopted by my American Legion Post 35 as their mascot and by July she had passed her Public Access Test. Finally on August 4, 2014, the day before my birthday, she graduated from her program as a certified service dog. I have to say, best birthday present ever.

Although I have had dogs my entire life, I have never had a relationship with a dog like I have with Sierra. To be quite honest, she rescued me.

Picture courtesy of Fading Sky Studios

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