The King of Sadness

“There is so little to remember of anyone – an anecdote, a conversation at a table. But every memory is turned over and over again, every word, however chance, written in the heart in the hope that memory will fulfill itself, and become flesh, and that the wanderers will find a way home, and the peGander Dogrished, whose lack we always feel, will step through the door finally and stroke our hair with dreaming habitual fondness not having meant to keep us waiting long.”

― Marilynne Robinson

 

My wife calls me the King of Sadness. She won’t read anything I write if she is not in a place where she can safely cry. While she sees the need for me to be cathartic and to give others permission to grieve the losses in their life by being honest about my own, she begs me to write more stories of joy and celebration. I think I do. Let me explain….

Today in the lobby of the hotel where we stay while I am receiving care at the VA, a long-term resident overheard me imploring the desk clerk and manager to look out the back door. There, autumn had gently pushed aside summer, the temperature was a perfect 65 degrees and the sun was burning away a sweet fog that had been gently communing with the pond around which Gander walks every morning.

The resident, who for as long as I have known him, has been full of anger and is known for being disgruntled and volatile and feared as mentally unstable. He has more than one sadly descriptive nickname. We parted ways after he once reached down in an attempt to strike Gander when he thought Gander might brush against him. He hates dogs and has fabricated stories to management in an attempt to get them banned from the hotel. If I thought he could be trusted with an animal, I think there is no human more in desperate need of a pet than this man.

Another guest asked our hotel curmudgeon today what everyone was going to look at outside. His reply: “Nothing. Just a little fog on the pond.” His disconnection from the beauty, only a few steps away, refreshed in me an understanding of things I had desperately needed to comprehend.

That “little fog” today, surrendered itself to a beautiful day, and took with it some of the pain and confusion I had been feeling. At the BMW Golf Championships yesterday, Gander and I were both emotionally and physically bruised when a crush of people eager to get an autograph from Tiger Woods pinned us against a retention fence. We were collecting the autographs on a flag to donate to Freedom Service Dogs to auction at their fund raiser this coming weekend. Tiger, afraid of the consequences of staying much longer stopped signing one person short of our position which we had staked out for almost two hours. We left the course almost immediately. On the way home I thought through my day. A few hours earlier, Phil Mickelson’s press agent had responded to my request to take a pic of him and Gander for an upcoming article about the PGA and wounded warriors by saying that Phil felt if he couldn’t take pictures with all vets he would take pictures with no vets. I was licking my pride induced wounds when I heard the news of the shooting in Washington. I quickly wrote a Facebook update: “The more I am around people, the more I love my dog.” My wife reported to me today that I kept her awake as I fought the demons of the day through a fitful night.

There was a book on the market several years ago entitled, The One Minute Meditator. At first glance you might react cynically and believe it to be a cheap pop culture attempt at mindfulness. Not so. In a country where TV news hopes to consume the better parts of our day with polarizing and demoralizing information; where we have lowered our heads six inches, below where it could be in appreciation of the beauty around us, in order to search for “likes” or another SMS; where a Phil Michelson, who makes more in a week than my father, a decorated hero who gave his life for his country made in a lifetime cut short by war, hasn’t time for a picture; where I have seen my government lower the flags to half-mast more in the last 13 years to honor those lost to mass murder than I saw it lowered the whole of the rest of my life in celebration of those who served us, it is important for us to start finding the pleasure in simple acts…

We would do well to drop what we are doing for a moment of silence, or to savor the taste of something delicious in our mouths, or to close our eyes for sixty seconds and let music translate the words our hearts desperately want everyone to understand, to watch a sunrise, or to stroke the fur of an appreciative pet….

How many suicides could be averted? How many could we lift out of depression? How many innocent souls could remain here on earth instead of being violently sent early on their journey to whatever awaits us beyond this life? To how many could we give a moment of pleasure before they are caught up again in the din and roar of a hurried, harried day of trivial pursuits we have come to believe are important?

This year I have watched closely as Gander created thousands of those kinds of meditative minutes. He was a conduit to all that is good in the here and now and to everything in need of remembering. He has provided a spiritual firewire, for me and hundreds of others he has not even met, needed to access the divine. He has facilitated smiles and goodwill in people worldwide. He has started the healing of many a broken spirit. How he has nurtured health in me and others is important: Often it starts with a memory and a moment of shared grief or loss. He reminds us of the dog that made their lives whole and the times and people that surrounded that period; he joins people with memories of a better time by taking them back to that place before somehow guiding them into the present and a celebration of what once was, maybe with the wag of a tail or an understanding kiss on the hand or cheek. Saul Bellow said, “Everybody needs his memories. They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” We remember a time when we felt wanted, needed and important.

Grief and the sadness that goes with it are part and parcel of appreciating all that is good. They are travel companions much more comfortable with each other than we know. I have long thought that monsters willing to strike an innocent animal or discharge a lethal bullet in the direction of a stranger must have a monstrous sorrow so tightly constrained that there is little room in their hearts for anything but anger or rage.

I may well be the King of Sadness with Gander as my advisor: Some Merlinesque wizard who can summon the past and cast a spell that empties us of sorrow so we might appreciate, if only for a minute, the joys around us that never really left. I just provide food and shelter for this magical character. He makes us wise by example and allows us to sleep better at night, to be better to all creatures we will meet in our short lives. He helps stretch those meditative minutes into hours, days, weeks…..

I’ll sleep better tonight…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

PS:

IN DOGS WE TRUST has an e-book option and it is ready for publication!

There are 25 incredible stories by some of America’s best writers in the print edition.
We have four days left!!!
Please help make it happen. Profits on publication go to Veteran and Service Dog Charities.
http://ow.ly/oXZy2

 

Hero Dogs: Part II

“There’s often a reason why people and dogs bite. It’s about self-protection. If we respect what we may not know about the suffering of others and look at them compassionately, we open the door that can lead to understanding.”
― Jennifer Skiff, The Divinity of Dogs

Hero DogsThis will be my last word on the awards. I am still flabbergasted that something as simple as a dog contest could turn into such a vicious, destructive force. You know I am not prone to criticism of others. But, the Hero Dogs are, for me, a sad metaphor for everything wrong with the internet, corporate America and the non-profits that lose their way, wrap themselves in good intentions, but end up fixated on monetary rewards so much that they lose sight of the compassions they purport to further. I’ll explain.

The American Humane Association (AHA) Hero Dog Awards are nearly over. Dozens of contestants devoted almost five months of their lives and enlisted the support of hundreds of their friends in support of the contest. I am glad it is coming to a close. It was akin to Vietnam for me: Never ending, the casualties mounting, the participants reviled and the administration in charge non-responsive to the people who fought on their behalf.

What finally angered me was not the collective questionable behavior of the “team” that won nor the deceptive marketing scheme devised by the AHA that is meant to convince potential advertisers of the benefits of supporting a weak social media campaign and their Hallmark Channel red carpet awards show . It was the complete lack of regard for the emotional welfare of the people who worked so hard to give them the numbers they needed to manipulate sponsors into continuing to finance the marathon contest that finally got to me.

The awards were effectively “fixed” from day one. Last year’s winner leveraged his celebrity and backed a team with his large following. The hundreds of contestants who participated as individuals were doomed to defeat from day one and the AHA knew it. Dozens of worthy dogs were excluded, not because of the strength of the competition, but questionable motives and morals of the juggernaut leader that had planned well in advance to dominate the awards. His following was not privy to his refusals to level the playing field even when sponsors were threatening to leave. Instead were falsely led them to believe he was being banned from the awards among other fabrications and exaggerations. Much of what he transmitted to his following was carefully spun to make him look like the victim of both the AHA and other trolls and “whiners,” as he called them, who wished him ill. He made mountains out of molehills to rally support, hurting all of us in the process. It worked. He obliterated the integrity of the contest and damaged the intended mission of the awards because he believed he was acting within the rules. And the AHA stood silent. Just two question: If the organization that, in part, built your celebrity would you threaten its viability? If you knew sponsors had threatened to pull out of the event because of your dominance would you still offer to support someone for the coming year’s contest even while you were in the midst of scrutiny and controversy for your behavior?

Most of the voters this year had cast ballots in last year’s event. The AHA, despite touting big numbers for participation, has a laughable presence on social media platforms. This award’s contest is poorly designed and does little to positive grow their membership or aid their branding. Their media package they pump to potential advertisers says they generate millions of visits to the Hero Dog website. In reality only a few thousand came and many were returnees who visited, again and again, to cast votes for the same slate of dogs. Some supporters openly admitted to using as many as seven email accounts to effect the outcome. Why did AHA allow this? Simple: Had they ended the awards within a sensible time frame and bern strict, they would have revealed their sadly low audience reach. If you do the math, it becomes apparent that the million plus votes allegedly cast, when divided by the 90 days of voting and allowing for the people who used several email accounts to cast multiple votes, made for very weak market saturation. And seven of the dogs received 1000+ votes a day that were all from the same boter base. Multiplied over 90 days that is 560,000+ votes that should not impact advertisers. If you follow the finalists on Facebook it is easy to see that the winners of each division, with a couple of exceptions, had no real influence on the internet beyond the support given them by last year’s winner. One such hero dog, today, had 6 likes and no reposts for a request for support if their dog in the final month long round of voting for overall winner. The numbers are a sham and the AHA should be ashamed of such a blatant manipulation of the numbers to con advertisers into paying higher than reasonable ad or sponsorship rates.

The list of transgressions by competitors and their supporters is long and in some cases frightening. A few of them:

Widespread machine voting and fraud…

Death Threats (yes, really) to some competitors…

Reporting of pictures, posts and comments as spam and abusive so they would be removed, robbing competitors of visibility…

Angry lambasting of competitors and the AHA on their Facebook walls and the walls of the AHA and other competitors.

Memes and captioned photos calling unspecified competitors “trolls” or “whiners” which colored all contestants negatively…I repeatedly asked for names of those claimed to be trolling, but was never answered.

The AHA knew by the end of the third week who would win and that none of the 150+ others had a reasonable shot of the ridiculously low prize money. Yet they remained silent and allowed hundreds/thousands of supporters to keep voting in order to boost their association’s dubious page view totals for advertisers. Most of us by this time were already apologizing to our friends for our impositions, unaware that we were actually calling on them to waste their time and enthusiasm on a lost cause. What I suggested was to add 3 Ambassador selections to the final winner’s circle. Those picked would be ones thought by the judges to be examples of what the contest was meant to exemplify. I was told it was $15,000 per tribute video if they did that so it was impractical. That’s awfully short sighted. A dog like Charlie Boy or Tennille could have garnered more positive attention than the other winners combined. Any acknowledgement of one or two others who had worked so hard to promote the AHA might well have dissipated some of the anger and resentment felt by dozens of contestants.

Open attacks on other competitors meant to completely discredit them: One veteran was told to crawl back into his hole with his booze and drugs after he called to question the eligibility of another dog. It was an allusion to his PTSD that did not set well with me. Another, who actually won their category, said that the stress was so bad that she was losing hair and having other somatic issues.

One dog, who won his division, clearly had a padded profile. I reviewed conversation transcripts from the dog’s previous owner, spoke to several professional handlers and am now 100% convinced his entire profile was fabricated. And the chief supporters of the dog and the AHA knew all along that the dog was not what he was presented to be….

That the AHA called this kind of behavior,”spirited competition” angered me, but not nearly as much as their actions after the last week of the competition. I awaited word about the voting outcome, as did the hundreds of people who supported other dogs, and never received an announcement of the category winners. All contestant profiles were simply deleted from the AHA website. I learned of the winners though their Facebook pages cheers of success. Winners had been notified while the losers were treated, not like supporters of the AHA, but just losers. We were not even given a “thank you” email for our three months of service to the AHA. We were left to explain to our friends that we were pretty sure we lost. The three months of service that helped them pre-sell ads to sponsors and to convince celebrity judges to participate were not recognized. The trials and tribulations we all endured they hoped would go unnoticed if they remained mute so they would not have image issues seem by their deep pocketed celebs… We were social and financial chimp change.

We were used. The AHA suffered from what pilots know as “target fixation”. It is when you are so focused on a the end result that you crash into the ground or get shot down because you were blind to everything else around you. They’ve lost considerable grass roots support. But I was told by one staffer they didn’t care. Hero Dogs only represents a small portion of their income.

I have taken a vow to never participate in another vanity contest or one that requires me to exploit my audience or my friends. The results of these kinds of contests, now that people know how to game the tallies, are questionable at best. And they bring out the worst in all of us. And with groups like the AHA caring only about numbers and willing to let competitors wreck havoc on reputations and serenity for the sake of a few dollars, it would make me an accomplice to such behavior.

The combined time and energy expended on the Hero Dog Awards could have generated much more tangible good for much more worthy organizations.

In the end I am grateful for the new connections I made and for being able to share Gander with a broader group of like minds. Gander’s Facebook page, which did not exist before the awards, is now a special sanctuary for dog lovers and a community of supportive friends. Now it is time for us to move forward toward common goals with positive, not destructive, consequences.

 

 

 

 

Thank you

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I get 1-2 requests a day from good people asking for different kinds of financial support, asking questions about how to obtain a service dog, requesting votes for an online contest, or raising support to pay for an assistance dog…

I live on a tight fixed income, but I’ve donated funds many times to help folks who love their dogs enough to have to swallow their pride and ask for outside help when they have no alternative. And I’ve put every one of those requests that seemed authentic on my twitter feed @veterantraveler for 70,000 others to see. I have watched closely and been pleased to see aid come in from friends online for worthy causes.

I’ve connected over a dozen people with advice and referred them on to service dog agencies. Several are waiting now for their companions.

I’ve asked you to support good causes by voting for credible and genuine friends like the Dogington Post as they supported Mill Dog Rescue. I hope we can continue those kinds of efforts.

In the future: I will refrain from soliciting votes for strictly vanity contests. I saw, through the Hero Dog Awards, the anger and discord they bring. I do want to help in events, like those sponsored by American Dog Magazine, where folks without a large support base, like us, can get recognized. And I always want to assist if one of our community members needs support for something worthy.

Gander’s Facebook wall, after the In Dogs We Trust book campaign, will continue to provide smiles and to act as a conduit for acts of kindness. That said, I think our time, money and talent should be respected and never exploited. Social media is in need of new ideas and better that better value us as people and not consumers. Social media needs a conscience check.

I was reluctant to engage friends here in my book campaign. For years I have avoided ads, solicitations and commercialism on all my feeds. I worked hard to build an online community I could learn from, not exploit.

But we have to start somewhere. And once the Indiegogo campaign finishes I hope we will just enough funds from the sale of the books and treats to sustain our charitable agendas: emotionally and physically wounded warriors susceptible to suicide, service dog access and canine rescue efforts.

I’ll be posting an article about our goals and how we plan to meet them next year. It will include visits to towns around America to teach children and small businesses about Service Dogs. And we will be visiting, as always, veteran memorials and resting places where we hope to offer up a twenty-one gun salute to homefront casualties of war: soldiers who have committed suicide. We want shed more light on these men and their stories in hopes of impacting treatment and reducing the shame of asking for help. We will play taps and fire off one shot to represent each one of the 21 vets who took their own lives that day. And we will talk to media and as many people as possible about the healing power of alternative therapies like service and emotional support dogs.

Nothing is ever expected of you here. Nothing. I’m honored to be able to share the adventures of a truly extraordinary dog and the wonderful people he meets. It is a triple pleasure to be part of these stories, share the tales with you and leverage any attention we might get into some measure of social good.

Thank you for all you have done …

IN DOGS WE TRUST: Support Page
http://veterantraveler.com/in-dogs-we-trust-support/

In Dogs We Trust: Tales of Canine Love, Inspiration, and Service

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CALL FOR SUBMISSIONS

Join a Host of Best-selling Authors and Dog Lovers to Create a Book for the Ages that will Honor the Profound connection between Dogs and their Humans and benefit PTSD and Suicide Prevention efforts

To Love is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. –C.S.Lewis

Born of my journey with PTSD and serious health issues to being an active crusader for Suicide Prevention, Trauma Recovery and Service Dog Awareness,always with the help of my battle buddy. Gander, In Dogs We Trust will combine moving stories of canine love, tenderness, and sacrifice from Patricia McConnell, Mike Ritland, Ted Kerasote, Kevin Hanrahan, Stephanie Weaver ( check out her kickstarter project:http://bit.ly/BuddyGirl ) , Bruce Littlefield, Cheryl Arnold Moseley, Alan Paul, Paul Owens, Anthony Bennie and a host of best selling-authors in a true celebration of dogs and the impact they’ve had on us.

You’ll be able to add a short paragraph at the end about yourself, your dog, your charity or cause, to be read by thousands.

Worried that your writing doesn’t quite convey the tale you have to tell?

Good news: our editor, Alexandra Thurman will help you explore the true heart of your personal story and put a free professional polish on it that you approve before press.

How to Submit:

Stories should be 5-1600 words of humor, inspiration, or remembrance. Short poetry will also be included but no longer than 5-15 lines. Previously published work may be included if the author has publishing rights.

Send your stories to veterantraveler@veterantraveler.com Please include your: Name, Address , Phone, Email and a brief bio of yourself

Payment:

You will receive one contributor’s copy of the book upon publication and the right to purchase any additional copies at the wholesale booksellers discount. Your name will be included in international publicity and you’ll be invited to launch parties and book signings when they occur. Stories selected will be announced about October 15, 2013 on Gander Service Dog’s Wall: http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog and he Http://veterantraveler.com

D ownload the submissions PDF here: http://veterantraveler.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/fifth-love-pdf.pdf


Dog Eat Dog: The AHA Hero Dog Awards Part I

Hero Dogs

“I am somewhat exhausted; I wonder how a battery feels when it pours electricity into a non-conductor?”
― Arthur Conan Doyle

At one point in the competition a representative of the American Humane Association answered a tsunami of criticism about its design and execution and the violent in-fighting that many competitors were experiencing by acknowledging the contest contestants to be “spirited.”To euphemistically call the madness of the social media contest “spirited” is skin to labeling the Nanjing Massacre a “skirmish.”

The American Humane Association Hero dog Awards just concluded the first round of voting (actually more like fifteen rounds without a bell) and they have now moved into the final selection phase where one of the dogs will be crowned AHA Hero Dog and will walk the red carpet in Hollywood with canine loving stars like Pauley Perrette, Betty White and Miranda Lambert. Gander and I staggered out of the last day with him in second place in the service dog category only to find that even the officials had already abandoned the finish line:  A powerful metaphor for the worst, yet most strangely rewarding three months in recent memory. I will explain….

I signed Gander on for the awards having no idea what to expect. The promise of the awards was that, at the worst, we could up the profile for the charity that provided me Gander and, at the best, snag a tiny cash prize, a dubiously important title and bragging rights that could mean positive exposure for my charity and the causes and agendas we promote: PTSD Awareness, Service Dog Access, Veterans Rights and Suicide Prevention. And we’d be supporting the Association by bringing in new donors to support the work they do.

I started or renamed accounts on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for Gander. I began recruiting supporters and implored people to follow the everyday heroism of a dog I credit with saving my life and bringing joy and inspiration to thousands more. The cohorts in the quest to elect Gander to public accolades were and are my saving grace: The kindest, most generous and thoughtful people I could ever imagine. While the competition was an example of all that is wrong with social media, the people supporting Gander were all that is right with the Web. And I felt that way, not because they backed my battle buddy, but because they trusted the intention of our involvement and created a community of grace and goodwill. Within a month Gander had 10,000 followers on Facebook, 60,000 on Twitter and 5, o00 on Instagram. I was ready. OK, I thought I was ready.

I began to look at other dogs entered in the competition. There were some extraordinary stories of courage and accomplishment. Surely, any of these dogs were worthy of an award and many were already bona fide heroes: Military war dogs who sniffed out IEDs, a  guide dog who did triple duty as guide, service and therapy dog for a Sergeant Major who was blinded in Iraq, and stories you hoped would be collected into a book and shared with the world. To think only one dog would emerge on top already seemed unfair.

It was soon evident that, though a month early, I was late to the party. A team of candidates had already formed and mounting a charge. At the front of the formation was last year’s winner with nearly fifty-thousand likes using his celebrity to back five dogs running in different categories. My work was cut out for me. Work was cut out for all of us. Not to self:  “Healey’s First Law Of Holes: When in one, stop digging.” ― Denis Healey. But, I am stubborn and what is life without challenge?

“The difficulty in dealing with a maze or labyrinth lies not so much in navigating the convolutions to find the exit but in not entering the damn thing in the first place. I am a stubborn warrior. I grabbed my sword and headed out to fight a digital sea. Had I known then how vicious and vile the fight would be I would have quit on the spot. Had I known in advance that the AHA would turn a blind eye to competitor transgressions and put page view,  celebrity and sponsorship opportunities above integrity, I would have never started.

G.K Chesterton once said that a good novel tells the truth about the hero while a bad one tells us about the author. While the awards could have been a bestseller, the AHA penned a weak tome….

Part II Saturday
“Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
― Abraham Lincoln

Gone to the dogs…

“All his life he tried to be a good person. Many times, however, he failed. For after all, he was only human. He wasn’t a dog.” ― Charles M. Schulz

Recently, I changed many of my social media account names to support Gander IMG_7288 in the Hero Dog Awards. while I never thought I would be a member of the cute overload club, but here I am: PR agent for a dog–and all that goes with it. Some things were unexpected… Reactions to the change varied: One long time friend on Instagram asked: “When did I start following a A DOG??!” The food critic, and generally cantankerous curmudgeon, promptly quit following. I had followed and “liked” his epicurean forays into places, where even Anthony Bordain might balk, for years. But, loyalty has limits for those who don’t understand our relationships with animals as perfect metaphors for how we live our lives with humans and how we should be living and loving each other with their unconditional love and loyalty as a guide.

And while Gander’s bearded muzzle has been on Chicago news channels, graciously featured and promoted by the kind souls at Dogington Post, featured in area newspapers and described on area radio, the military community has been relatively silent. Gander is the only veteran service dog in the competition and one of our goals is to heighten awareness of PTSD and offer dogs, not drugs, as one alternative to the horrors of anxiety disorder caused by trauma. But, suicide and invisible wounds are still conversational IEDs.

Bear with me as I digress for a second: We don’t talk about military sexual assault because there is a part of us that does not completely believe the victim. We don’t speak loudly enough about suicide because we are afraid that weakness may be a factor in that choice, and we fear even more the part of ourselves that might one day answer our own panic, depression or chronic pain with an overdose or a bullet. We don’t recognize the pandemic, insidious presence of PTSD because we see too many who malinger and draw benefits for wounds they do not have. So, we doubt those who exhaust themselves daily to give the appearance of normalcy while they are so terrified by everyday events they can barely breath–those who, if they dared, would scream for help. And many who suffer night terrors and daily panic won’t admit to dysfunction for fear of being thought of in these ways. It dawned on me: If people cannot understand why a pet owner would vocalize, tweet, photograph or wax poetic about their companions, they sure as hell were not going to follow the deeper bond someone with invisible wounds would feel toward a dog that saved them from social or self annihilation.

In a recent phone interview someone from Freedom Service Dogs, where Gander was trained, told a reporter that Gander and I were well matched because we were both so gregarious and social. What spending 24/7 with Gander has taught me is that both of us as orphans and trauma survivors respond to stress similarly: In Psychology it is called a reaction formation. That is, we do the exact opposite of what is expected of someone with anxiety disorder. Some sufferers of panic disorder and PTSD take up extreme sports, force themselves into public speaking roles or become overly talkative and friendly. That is us. Gander and I reach out and do what we can to connect to people when it is daredevil tough for us to do so.

Imagine yourself on a high balcony. Remember a time when it unexplainably made you a little afraid to be there. Feel for a second that wave of anxiety that starts in  your legs, travels to your stomach and then, like emotional hemlock, travels to your brain where you question whether or not you might fall, even when a secure railing is in front of you. Worse, you believe that you might lose your senses altogether and jump. Double, if you can, the dread and apprehension you feel and THAT  is what I experience in a conversation with a stranger, while eating a meal in an unfamiliar restaurant, or when driving a car over a bridge, and when having even a simple medical or dental procedure done.

Now, I want you to don a parachute and base jump from the balcony just when your knees are their weakest, your breath is shallow and your chest is so tight you are sure you are close be having a heart attack. Imagine your descent to be hours, not seconds long. It is like a day at an adventure park: After you arrive home safely and and the adrenaline wears off, you are exhausted. You can feel muscles that the stress wrapped around you to keep you from flying apart. Your day was so extreme that you have trouble remembering parts of it. You are left to wonder if it was worth it and whether or not you will do it again. You repeat visions of the day in in you mind as you try to fall asleep and they pervade your dreams. You are jolted awake and drenched in fear. You start your morning exhausted.

How we arrived is different for all of us: Every soldier, sexual abuse victim, accident or terror incident survivor has his or her own threshold and hence, their own path to recovery. I made it through beatings, medical and physical torture, starvation, and a number of very real near-death accidents. But, although I myself was once an accomplished counselor in the Army guiding people back from the horrors of war, I could no longer even counsel myself. Once a long distance runner, I could no longer stand to feel my heart beat quickly or powerfully in my chest; once an accomplished actor, public speaker and professor, I could not collect my thoughts or calm my nerves enough to talk to a service club in my hometown; once honored as the national outdoorsman of the year, I couldn’t even imagine myself climbing above timberline to watch the sunset as I once did daily. Once a martial artist and a champion debater, I was no longer able to protect myself either physically or verbally. Once a nationally recognized poet and writer I no longer believed that I could find the words to describe my inner or outer landscape.

We wear the marks of our masters and mine are PTSD, anxiety disorder and autoimmune disease. They are getting better. They are better, not because the VA had me on addictive medication for years, but because of the support of friends, and the comfort, service and protection afforded me by Gander. Far from being ashamed of my reliance on a four-leeged palliative, I want to shout to the rooftops about what he has done for me. I want people to know how much better life is without daily thoughts of suicide–for my benefit and the poor souls who had suffer the symptoms of my troubles–and without medication that narcotized me, altered my personality for the worse, robbed me of sleep and had me staggering though life without ambition or purpose. Gander Service DogAmbition for most of us with PTSD is the desire to live just one stress-free day. Ambition for me now is to share hope with others, to tell people there are other ways to cope, and to demonstrate by example, for the VA and others, that PTSD service dogs are powerful adjuncts to any therapy they currently prescribe.

The most I will ever ask you for in support of my new dreams: stop by once in a while and let me know what is on your mind and in your heart, repost and retweet my status updates when they offer good information and encouragement to veterans and others suffering with anxiety and mood disorders, and yes, cast a daily vote for Gander in the Hero Dog Awards to help make the mission of Freedom Service Dogs and groups like them a national priority for the VA and other mental health organizations. And with this being National PTSD Awareness Month, help spread knowledge and understanding.. It takes only a second to retweet a kind word, a helpful article or an uplifting picture or video.

Yep, I have gone to the dogs and I am damned happy about it.   For those who still do not know the love of a good dog: I am sorry. And to those of you who are lucky enough to have a canine hero in your life: Cheers. And to those who support our journey: Thank you.

To vote for my personal hero go here: HERO DOG 

Hero Dogs

Gander Dog

Please Vote in the Hero Dog Awards

Mark Twain said” “Heaven goes by favor; If it went on merit, you would stay out and your dog would go in.” Those of us lucky enough to have dogs think of them in much the same way new parents think of their children. We are insufferable: our dog is smart, adorable, and different or special in some way others will never hope to be.

A dog doesn’t have to have a fancy obedience school degree or be a member of SEAL Team Six to get rated as your personal hero. And nothing can match the saving grace of a dog when loneliness or anxiety drive us to isolation or tears. Nothing compares to the quiet comfort of a trusting muzzle in your lap, a dog kiss on the cheek or that psychoanalytic tilt of the head as they listen to your troubles. Understanding us is heroic enough, but they selflessly run in to rescue us when our emotional houses are burning down.

Then, there are dogs that are called on to go above and beyond the call of canine duty to do things we mere mortals cannot: Scouring dangerous terrain for the scent of IEDs, combing debris for survivors in an earthquake zone or still buried in a Himalayan avalanche area, or bringing down alive an armed robbery suspect. Much is expected of them and they perform with little more for reward than gentle rough-housing, or a toss of a tennis ball. So, every year the American Humane Association honors these extraordinary canine and their sacrifices with the Hero Dog Awards. They recognize dogs in several categories: Military, Law Enforcement/Arson, Therapy, Guide (hearing and sight), Emerging Hero and Service. The awards build an audience for the tremendous work of the AHA, applaud the agencies and owners who have trained and loved these canines into action and literally roll out the red carpet for the dogs at the Beverly Hills Hilton. The AHA says:

The American Humane Association Hero Dog Awards™ were created in 2010 to celebrate the remarkable bond between dogs and people. This annual national competition searches out and recognizes America’s Hero Dogs, who unconditionally avail themselves to us in so many important ways, whether it’s saving lives on the battlefield, lending sight or hearing to a human companion, providing therapeutic support to children suffering from cancer, or just greeting us with a wagging tail at the end of a hard day.

Gander is a nominee in the Service Dog category. I think, having being rescued from death row by the prison training program at Canon City Penitentiary, Gander knows adversity and is especially suited to his job.


You only need to look at the pictures of him then and now to see how being of service has changed Gander. I look similar and I am more mobile and healthier by the day.IMG_8021  He has saved my life many times and provides help to me  24/7 as a PTSD dog and assists me when my autoimmune issues make mobility painfully difficult.

He could easily be in the Therapy category: I allow him to be social at VA hospitals, coffee shops, schools and meetings. He is an extrovert and naturally empathic. He seems to know how and when to to engage and connect equally with children, wounded veterans, widows and widowers, and lonesome travelers who just need a belly to scratch or a quick game of fetch.

Webster defines a hero many ways:

One who shows great courage: Gander hasn’t been in combat, but he has placed himself in harm’s way for the benefit of a small girl being attacked by a stray dog. Like his military friend in the competition, SSD Honza, he posted himself out front and ignored the danger to rescue his friend.

One admired for achievements and noble qualities:

Gander’s purpose in life is to serve. I love him, but I try not to sing his praises too loudly. He wins his own lasting praise by being a serious professional, a playful companion and caring friend. I have watched him head straight for people who need him the most. I have seen warriors and proud blue collar laborers weep when Gander opened a space in their hearts.

I most admire people in my life who naturally gravitate toward those in need. I personally define a hero as anyone who puts themselves in danger or gives up freedoms so that others may enjoy theirs: That would be Gander.

An illustrious warrior:

Friends call Gander by many names: Professor, Ambassador, King. I think of him as a warrior in the fight against Veteran Suicide. He has made me a living testament to the healing power of service dogs.

The VA abandoned funding for PTSD service dogs at the time they were most needed. The battle now is to show them they were wrong. Every vote for Gander gives us more visibility which gives us the power to change hearts and minds. Twenty-one Veterans committed suicide today. More has to be done to save our nation’s heroes. Dogs, not drugs is the battle cry.

Visit Gander’s profile here: HERO DOGS and while you are on the site, look for Bodacious, SSD Honza, Leisel and Dublin. They are Gander’s battle buddies competing in different categories. You can vote for them in addition to Gander. Any money awarded to these dogs goes to a service agency they have chosen to support. Of course, Freedom Service Dogs is Gander’s charity!

Thank you. Follow Gander on Facebook GANDER SERVICE DOG and on Twitter at VETERAN TRAVELER and on Instagram at @GANDERFORHERODOG

 

 

All in…

 

ArlingtonI am tired, Beloved, of chafing my heart against
The want of you;
Of squeezing it into little inkdrops,
And posting it.
And I scald alone, here, under the fire
Of the great moon. Amy LowellToday over 7,000 people attended the funeral of Chris Kyle the SEAL murdered while helping a troubled comrade cope with the wounds of war. Thousands more watched on television and others monitored social media and news channels as Chris was eulogized as a great father, an American hero and a compassionate friend.At about the same time, a news report surfaced about the SEAL who allegedly shot Bin Laden. Full of inconsistencies and troubling accusations I posted it on my Facebook wall and asked for input from friends I know to be in the Special Forces support community. I put the questions up prior to reading the accounts of Kyle’s memorial service. As a soldier and a career family member I should have known today was no day to interfere in what was surely a day of grieving for every “dependent” who has lost a husband, father, fiancé, brother, son or lover…

Chris Kyle’s widow said today: “I stand before you a broken woman. Chris Kyle was ‘all in’ no matter what he did in life.”

Family members are all in too:

It was my mother who endured 6 of 20 years of separation as my father was deployed or in training and often without the ability to communicate with him

It was my mother who pressed uniforms, made dinners, and was there to greet him after deployments with everything he needed to feel safe and at home.

It was my wife who had an emergency C-section alone in rural Texas while I was in training and unable to get leave to see her.

It was my mother who saved my father from disciplinary action afer he had too much to drink one night with other combat vets. It was my mother who impressed on his company commander how much our family would suffer if he lost even a little of his pay.

It was my wife and my mother who made new friends a dozen times and searched for work in unfamiliar surroundings to augment our meager salaries.

It was my wife and mother who found things to sell when our military salaries were not enough to get us through a month.

It was my mother who collected souvenirs and photos from every duty station only to see them taken out to sea in Hawaii by the biggest tidal wave in modern history.

It was my mother, nine months away from retirement and her dream of a stable life, who opened the telegram from the war department and learned of my father’s critical injuries in Vietnam.

It was my wife and mother who raised children alone while we were called away.

It was my mother who learned to shop at fire sales and who stood in welfare lines for cheese and butter while the VA was taking more than a year to award him benefits.

It was my mother who cared for a man she barely recognized after the war. She tended to his needs every day of his injured life.

It was my mother, all 4’11” of her, who dragged my father from room to room when he could no longer walk. It was my mother who told nobody of his illness to preserve his dignity and to keep the only constant she had ever known close to her.

It was my mother and I who stood alone in the funeral home mourning a man who left his friends on battlefields or deployments long past and had no one left to salute him or to comfort her.

It was my mother who left us all for the comfort of Alzheimer’s Disease where she had no loss, no pain she could remember.

It is me who goes, year after year, to the Vietnam Memorial still trying to make some sense of it all and still trying to reconcile my grief.

A friend today commented on my post and remarked that she was “only a [military] widow” and implied she didn’t have the authority to comment. She, like everyone in our huge extended military family has the right and the authority to claim appreciation for their service to our nation and to speak out on issues that affect those who fought and those who were there to care for them when they came home.

It is the military family member who is all in…

RIP Chris Kyle and may your family find peace….

 

 

The Fifth Love

“Nobody can fully understand the meaning of love unless
he’s owned a dog. A dog can show you more honest
affection with a flick of his tail than a man can
gather through a lifetime of handshakes.

Gene Hill – The Dog Man

I just returned from the meal offered to veterans every year by the kind folks at Applebees. I go less for the food than to see the 100 or so other vets there from every era from WWII to Afghanistan. In fact, I feel a little guilty about the free food and always donate the cost of the meal to a charitable cause. Though, I am grateful to Applebees for making present and former service personnel feel valued and for bringing back a nostalgic spirit of comradery. There is a special love and respect that exists between those who served regardless of their country of origin or the job they performed. We are a sentimental lot looking for validation that our time in uniform meant something. It becomes more and more of my persona the older I get. But, already I digress–a little…

A man in his sixties wearing a black ball cap with embroidered Vietnam service medals quietly approached my table and leaned over to stroke Gander. His eyes were swollen as he told me, without looking up, that he wished he could bring his dog with him on trips and into restaurants. “I have a Boxer. And since my wife died, that dog is everything to me.”

It’s far from the first time Gander has evoked powerful feelings and memories for people around him. There was a widow in a department store who said she wished that she could have a dog in her living facility. “It’s so lonely there.”

And there was the 6’2″ muscular and intimidating retired SEAL who, two weeks ago, barreled through the lobby of the complex where I live. He had been drinking and his face told me he was mentally far away and not happy about what he had found there. Gander uncharacteristically went against his training and headed straight for the man and leaned all 65 pounds against his shins. The tension drained from his face, his voice became scratchy as he gently stroked Gander and spoke with a powerful gentleness about his canine companion of 14 years that he had just freed from the pains of age and infirmity. He went on to talk about his fears about an upcoming trip overseas and the panic attacks he was having and how he now knew what invisible wounds and suffering were and wondered out loud why more victims didn’t kill themselves. And wished his “battle buddy” was still here to help him through this.

If Gander can do this with total stranger, imagine what he does for me. I am asked a dozen times a day what job Gander performs for me. I never know how to adequately answer. “He is my best friend”, “He saved my life” are a couple of my replies. More playfully I might muse: “He is a Bodhisattva here to guide me to compassion for myself and others”… But, truly? If I were Buddhist it would be easy to believe this dog was the newest incarnation for some wise Tibetan Lama.

I read The Four Loves by C.S. Lewis when I was in high school and it helped me make sense of the myriad feelings that relationships can conjure and kept me from confusing different types of connections. And after I had accumulated a few more experiences in my life, I came to believe that there other were types of love that Lewis and the Greeks didn’t record.

Ancient Greeks had four names for love:

  • Storge:”It is described as the most natural, emotive, and widely diffused of loves: natural in that it is present without coercion; emotive because it is the result of fondness due to familiarity.”
  • Eros: Sexual love. The madness and fire that consume us and fell our ego boundaries.
  • Agape: Unconditional love for others. A spiritual mandate to be kind and charitable.
  • Philia: Friendship and the strong bond existing between people who share common interests or activities.

Most of us are confused about love and what is means to love someone or something. People who love their animals understand a special kind of affinity that is borne of fidelity not unlike that of soldiers who have relied on a comrade to carry them physically or emotionally through difficulty without the thought of reward. This love transcends Philia and is deeper felt and longer remembered than Storge. It is a love that knows it can never repay the other for what he has received. It is a love that knows fidelity is not required, as Lili Palmer once wrote, but that it is a mutual gift. And it is a love so powerful and positive that the receiver grieves the loss of the other, long before he has departed. Marjorie Garber said, “If you have a dog, you will most likely outlive it; to get a dog is to open yourself to profound joy and, prospectively, to equally profound sadness.”

It has been a while now since Gander entered my life. Prior to that I was being tested by the VA for heart disease because my resting pulse was routinely above 110. It now averages 80. I sleep better. And I don’t reach for the phone in the car to quiet fears or shunt an overactive imagination because his muzzle is always resting on my shifting arm. And I don’t move him, just as you don’t wake a sleeping infant for the sense of peace he provides–something I have not known for a while.

I don’t have a name for this love yet. I am still understanding it as I learn more about my new friend and earnestly work to improve the private communications we share, the ones that allow us to better care for each other. I will be writing more about those in posts to come.

When I was at my worst with panic attacks and night terrors I could not remember what it meant to be normal. When I left Freedom Service Dogs last week–I was there for Gander’s graduation–I remarked that I could not remember what life was like before Gander. And I don’t ever want to .

Here is to battle buddies past and present and their selfless sacrifices for all they hold dear.

The Triple Rescue

“You can’t live a perfect day without doing something for someone who will never be able to repay you.” –John Wooden

In athletics “3” is an auspicious number: Whether its the Triple Play, Triple Axel, Triple Somersault, or other achievement all of them on the far edge of excellence. This week, I witnessed the volunteer sector equivalent of a Triple Crown, the Triple Rescue.

Rescue One:

I drove from Chicago to Denver to meet my service dog Gander. Eighteen hours on the road did not dampen my enthusiasm. As soon as I was settled in the Extended Stay America Hotel near the foothills of my youth in Colorado, I headed straight to the Freedom Service Dogs’ Kennels hoping someone might be there on a Sunday to introduce me to Gander.I was jazzed, like a teenager about to get my driver’s license or the first kid up early on Xmas. I couldn’t wait….

But, Gander was being pampered at a home stay with his trainer–he is a bit of a canine rock star with the staff–so, I wasn’t able to chat with him before our training, scheduled to begin on Monday. Instead, I was invited into the exercise yard to meet a rambunctious program drop out who was being exercised by one of the Freedom handlers. The dogs who fail to make the grade are cared for until they are adopted into a good home. Being sent down from the majors didn’t seem to bother him. He was more interested in chasing his rope toy.

So, instead, I had a chance to visit with the handler. Being around dogs has a way of dissolving barriers and opening people up to more authentic conversation, and Sunday was no different: She told me about her years in a Colorado women’s prison during which she became involved with a Freedom Service Dogs partner program that teaches inmates how to train dogs. A similar program in Texas has a 0% recidivism rate among the graduates. She went on to express her gratitude for the “second chance” given to her by Freedom and talked briefly about how rewarding the work there was for her. The entire staff talks with great emotion about the positive changes they have seen the dogs make in client’s lives.

Rescue two:

I was running on no sleep when I headed to training. It is no small undertaking to bring a service dog into your life. I was about to be responsible for a very expensive and well trained addition to my life. I am sure I did not feel any less excited or anxious than the adoptive parents I so often greeted in Guangzhou, China when they were preparing visas and custody papers for their new infants. He was to be more than companion: He would become a family member who would also faithfully perform much needed duties if he was properly managed and cared for during the years to come.

Gander looks like one of the furry sidekicks for an old TV western anti-hero or the canine version of a forgetful old literature professor in a corduroy jacket with patches at the elbows. He was on-task all day: He watches you with almost unnerving intensity to be alert to cues about what he should be doing. When off-duty, he was affectionate and gentle. He loves to lean against you and kisses are a big part of his free time repertoire.Later, I would learn that his only real distraction is chasing and retrieving a tennis ball. You couldn’t get anyone more hooked to heroin than Gander is to fetch. But, I digress….

Gander was brought to the prison at Canon City, Colorado from a shelter–all the dogs at Freedom in its 25 year history have been rescued. Luke, his name in stir, only did a short stint before being paroled to Freedom Service Dogs. Cool Dog Luke was then re-branded as Gander the wonder dog and the rest, as they say, will be history.

Gander was finally pardoned and set free to come home with me on Thursday. We have had a couple of outings, though they are discouraged during the first 30-day bonding period. But Gander, who has been in a Subaru commercial already, handles fame pretty well.Everyone adores him and he attracts a lot of attention. I am planning on buying a t-shirt that says, “Yes, my dog is awesome, but what about me?”

Rescue three:

Ryan and Stevie

My classmates are a pretty diverse group: A mental health therapist who will use her dog Sprocket (aren’t these cool names?) as a canine mediator during supervised court visitations when children of divorce and separation are afraid and confused; Two Iraq war veterans with PTSD. One of the vets, three IED explosions and a mortar attack later, suffers from traumatic brain injury (TBI) in addition to three vertebrae that were replaced after being thrown 50 feet from his Humvee. Their dogs, Doppler and Stevie, respectively, are perfect matched for them; A man from Wyoming with brace and balance problems brought on by Cerebral Palsy (CP) and seizure issues will use his dog Cash to improve mobility and the quality of his life; and the mother of an autistic child who will use Agave an enthusiastic and loving Lab to keep her son focused on tasks outside of himself.

In five short days I have watched near miraculous transformations in some of the personalities and the bonding has begun in earnest. The dogs have trained their humans to be more open, communicative and focused. These dogs, each costing some $30,000 each to train, are “gifted” to the clients who must agree to watch over them as much as they are watched over by the dogs. And I think that is an easy sell: From quiet and reserved, the PTSD veterans have already become more open, engaging and even playful. Cash’s human already gets tears in his eyes as he talks about the new friend he has waited almost two years to greet.

This has been a wonderfully exhausting week. I now know 20-30 commands that Gander already had mastered and will soon move on to the dozen or so ways to cue him to perform duties specific to my needs. We are doing well. Gander and I slept through the last two nights like a couple of long time barracks buddies.

Me and Professor Gander

This was rescue number three, times five. The only real question left is like the bumper sticker tag line I saw this week: “Who rescued who?”

Roger Caras said, “Dogs have given us their absolute all. We are the center of their universe. We are the focus of their love and faith and trust. They serve us in return for scraps. It is without a doubt the best deal man has ever made. ” Well, it is certainly the best deal I could have ever made.

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Dog Bless Freedom Service Dogs and the incredible volunteers and financial supporters who made this happen. I will never be able to repay them for these perfect days, but I will try. And if you are ever so inclined: Freedom Service Dogs

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