The Voices at Arlington

The Voices at Arlington

(This story first appeared in The Dogington Post ) 

“…what most separates dogs from humankind isn’t mental capacity, however, but innocence. This innocence carries with it a clarity of perception that allows dogs to glory in the wonder of creation in even the most humble scene and quiet moment…the combination of their innocence and their intelligence allows them to serve as a bridge between what is transient and what is eternal, between the finite and the infinite.” –Dean Koontz

Gander, my service dog, and I frequent veteran cemeteries and memorials when we travel. We accept requests in advance from friends and social media; contacts will ask us to visit a relative’s gravesite, take a picture of a name on a memorial or leave something in memoriam. Gander quietly sits vigil as I prepare for the rites I have promised to perform. I take this ritual seriously and Gander honors the gravity of promise fulfillment with exceptional calm and professionalism.

Because of the solemnity of our intentions, we go when few people are likely to be there with us at the same time. But, more than once we have exchanged whispered greetings along the way with others and have occasionally been invited into emotional drawing rooms: that place between the living and the dead where Gold Star families mourn. Twice, while at Arlington National Cemetery, Gander has called people deep in grief out of their sadness and comforted them as they spoke about love and loss.

I think we often see and hear what we want to see and hear; we interpret simple events as important lessons. And at other times life rally does conjure up for us exactly what we need, at that moment in time, to navigate toward safety and comfort; a last chance at rescue before resigning ourselves to being adrift forever.

Gander had stopped unexpectedly several times. He would look to me for approval and then gaze out toward the long rows of white markers. Then he would cock his head the way a dog does when someone is talking to him.

A women and her daughter who had been ahead of us for most of our journey toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stopped just a few yards short of our destination. “Do you suppose he can hear them? The soldiers?” I was relieved. It wasn’t just me who thought he was in touch with something invisible and inaudible to we humans. It was a beautiful sunny day. There was a slight breeze, but it was barely strong enough to rustle leaves. He looked engaged, not perplexed or curious in the same caring way he connects with me when I need a dispassionate listener in times of inner turmoil.

She told me that she visits Arlington once a week. Her brother was interred not far away. He’d served in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman. His Purple Heart was earned with a minor injury when their mobile surgery facility was mortared one dark midnight in 1969. He’d been given the Silver Star for his selfless actions that same night while attending to patients without regard for his own welfare. She shared that he had left both medals at the base of Vietnam Memorial years ago as a tribute to the dozens of men he had watched succumb to injuries beyond medicine’s ability to repair.

The day his tour ended he was taken by helicopter from a fire base where he had been performing triage, deciding who would stand the best chance of quick treatment, for wounded members of a platoon that experienced heavy casualties when ambushed by the Viet Cong. He was transported to a waiting 727 that flew him to San Francisco where, still in jungle fatigues, he disembarked through a gauntlet of angry protesters. At twenty years old he was a stranger in his own country after only nine months in Vietnam.

He’d been afraid when he went, she said. The fear was replaced by the grief and guilt he felt on his return. She told me that remembered every name, and held pictures in his mind of every wound he had dressed. His world became television, books, and a dozen ways to pass the sleepless hours.

A job in the post office on the graveyard shift kept him financially solvent. He never applied for Veterans benefit. Working at night, there were few people who demanded his attention. But, the anxiety and depression worsened. And isolation couldn’t create enough new memories to replace the old ones.

By the time he reached out for help, the VA, with the casualties of two new wars to attend to, had few programs and little time to coax cooperation from an aging Viet Vet. The new counselor hires were kind enough, but they couldn’t empathize with a man, decades their senior, who could barely give voice to the increasing sadness and despair inside of him.

He left a note the day he hung himself. He said the only reliable friend left in his life was suicide. He asked not to be buried in a military cemetery because that was reserved for soldiers who fought and for those he’d watched over as they died. But, because money was tight she had arranged for him to be interred at Arlington.

“I feel ashamed. I want him to be at peace,” she said quietly. “Do you think he can ever forgive me?”

You want to say “yes” at moments like that. You want to have a spiritual connection; you want to believe that this kind of deadly regret can be vanquished. That another good person should die physically, emotionally or spiritually because they had done the best they could, should never happen.

I want to lie just to give her some peace. But, remorse and grief are clever, intuitive adversaries: They know when you have nothing more to offer than a “sorry” in the way of a anecdote, aphorism or falsehood meant to send them on their way. I had courted suicide for a long time. There, but for the grace of Gander and God, was I. But, I couldn’t do it. I didn’t know what to do or say.

Just then, Gander rose, turned again toward the graves, before slowly moving toward me with his head bowed. He reared back on his hind legs and placed his front paws squarely in the center of my chest and looked me straight in the eyes the way he does when I am overwhelmed and at a loss for words or actions. A long kiss on the cheek later and he pushed himself off, wheeling to turn toward the woman, who by now was in tears. He turned his body sideways and leaned his weight against her.

It hardly matters whether or not it was coincidence that Gander chose that moment to be affectionate. It has happened so many times now I am no longer surprised when it happens. There was no explanation needed, no words left to be exchanged between us. She did lean down to look into Gander’s endlessly soulful eyes to say “thank you”. We both received an answer we could believe.

“That’s what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays” –Mitch Albom

Veteran Traveler blogger Lon Hodge is an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs.

Follow Gander on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog on Twitter at http://twitter.com/veterantraveler or on Instagram at http://instagram.com/veterantraveler

You Can Purchase In Dogs We Trust here: In Dogs
100% of profits go toward suicide prevention charities.
This story first appeared in The Dogington Post and will be included in the In Dogs We Trust e-book and softcover editions.

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/

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….