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.

VA funding of service dogs: a second look…

“Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!”
― L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

Several blogs and Facebook pages cheered this week when then VA announced it would fund the costs of service dogs for veterans.  freedom-service-dogs-pkg-tr.jpg?w=1500Ostensibly, this was something to rave about. In reality,    there was little to celebrate and the impact on veterans most in need of canine assistance will not be impacted at this time.

The VA decided two years ago, decided to pay ay for costs only associated with a service dog, but only in cases of physical disability.  That means that dogs needed for mobility, hearing, sight would be covered.  Psychiatric issues, like PTSD, were not to be covered.because the VA felt there was not enough evidence to show that the dogs were efficacious.  Despite the wealth of information available to show that service dogs save lives and improve quality of life the VA started an  administratively bloated study to determine if dogs could make a difference in the lives of vets.

The news release this week made it seem like the VA had shifted position. They have not. The only new feature in their policy is that Truepanion insurance company will be paying four the care of dogs “eligible” according to existing regulations.

Currently to get a dog you must have recommendations from your treatment  team, an evaluation by the appropriate clinic (ortho, audiology…) and then go through the prosthetic department who must requisition the dog from Washington, DC.  In addition, the VA also requires you to attend and complete a training course with your dog through Assistance Dogs International or the International Guide Dog Federation.  Once completed, the VA will pay for the costs associated with veterinary care, travel associated with buying and training the dog, along with hardware required for the dog to be able to assist the veteran. Ordinary costs of care (food and such) are not covered.

In my case, I was certified by orthopedics and psychiatry for a dog and then send to prosthetics. They denied my request because I was not service connected for my mobility issues. If I were in need of a wheelchair, crutches, surgery or any other equipment for a non-service connected issue I would be eligible because I am 100% service disabled. But, dogs are excluded equipment. It is like a medication or appliance that is not yet in their inventory due to cost or other reason.

The need for PTSD dogs to help tens of thousands of vets with combat and non-combat related related stress has spawned dozens of new service dog agencies. But, only a handful of them will be eligible for for VA programs for two reasons:

1. The VA will require that the agencies training dogs have Assistance Dog International accredited trainers or other agencies they designate. Most of the new programs do not have these trainers on board. “Veterans who are paired with a PTSD service dog often rave about how it improves their condition. Yet, there has been controversy  over the expertise and professionalism of organizations that have emerged to serve the demand…” The VA is the source of controversy and in past studies has levied some very unrealistic expectations on even ADI established agencies. I know firsthand as I was originally to be part of the VA study program started in Tampa, Florida.

2. The service dog must have been provided at no cost to the veteran. If the agency requires the veteran to raise any of the funds needed the dog is not eligible for the program. Cash strapped non-profits doing good work whether ADI certified or not will not benefit from the program.

With the number of vets returned and returning from war zones with PTSD estimated at nearly 30% of those who served it is a problem the VA needs to be addressing sooner than later. The current study by the VA is scheduled to conclude in four years. How many soldier will have taken their own life by that time. The generosity of the private sector and reputable groups like Freedom Service Dogs (who trained Gander) and Patriot Paws will have to rely on the kindness of their donors to further their live saving missions until the VA answers the growing call for alternatives and adjuncts to debilitating drug therapies.

 

 

  

Fake Service Dogs

The Real Trouble with Fake Service Dogs

The following guest post was written for The Dogington Post  

To fake it is to stand guard over emptiness.
–Arthur Herzog

There is a barely a day goes by that I do not see a tweet, news article or Facebook update about someone being denied entrance into a restaurant or shop because they are accompanied by a service dog. Many of the incidents have involved combat veterans and their PTSD Battle Buddies and other individuals with “invisible” disabilities.

Some businesses have suffered catastrophic losses and had their ignorance of disability regulations broadcast nationwide. Some of the public shaming has been wholly earned, while some businesses simply have never been educated and paid a heavy price for their on the job training. With the growing number of service dogs being employed and the explosion of new service dog agencies, the problem looks to get much worse before it gets better. So, why is it happening and what needs to be done?

A lack of standards for certifying a service dog, the growing number of online agencies that will sell anyone a vest and intimidating looking documents that imply the dog who carries them is legitimate, and a lack of proper training for service personnel, law enforcement and hospitality staffs are primarily to blame.

Libertyville, Illinois, the town adjacent to where I live, just passed an ordnance requiring Service Dog ID cards for “real service dogs.”  Therein lies the rub: There are no legitimate documents that can certify that any canine is authentic. While there are standards for trainers, there are no universally accepted standards for what constitutes an acceptable service dog. And the law itself, while sympathetic to local businesses who don’t want animals in their businesses for fear of losing customers, flies in the face of ADA requirements and standards.

The Veterans Administration, ironically exempt from Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) legislation is investigating requiring all dogs to be trained by Assistance Dogs International (ADI) certified trainers. That has caused uproar among established non-ADI trainers who opt out of ADI control over their methods. In the interim, the VA where I receive treatment is seeing a huge increase in the number of dogs and many of them inadequately trained and even dangerous.

A few weeks ago Gander, my service dog who was trained by an ADI certified trainer, was attacked by an aggressive dog who clearly had no business being in public: The dog barked, failed to heel, and attended little, if at all, to his human. They come in all shapes and sized: Earlier in the day I spoke to a veteran who openly, and almost proudly, admitted that he had bought his Chihuahua’s vest and laminated credentials online and that he proudly told people that his dog was a seizure alert companion. More recently, I watched a Great Dane with a service dog scarf wander from table to table in a local restaurant in search of scrap handouts while the owner laughed and encouraged horrified patrons to ignore him. Though service dog misrepresentation is a crime in many states, few businesses know enough about them to risk media humiliation by sending away a troublesome dog.

And agencies are not anxious to “certify” service dogs. It creates a measure of liability in out litigious society that suit happy plaintiffs and many lawyers would love to see. It could well imply the dog is somehow safe to be in public. While gander has never acted out, he is after all a dog and could possibly be goaded into a conflict an aggressive poser. And what if an innocent bystander was scratched or bitten in the process?

So, greeted with skepticism and questions, those of us with bona fide needs endure unnecessary hostility creates stress that is counterproductive and defeats the purpose for getting a PTSD service dog in the first place. I am worn out by franchises and chain stores rushing to the door to keep me from bringing in my “pet”. Starbucks, Subway and McDonald’s have led the way in abusive confrontations. But, I generally take a moment to explain and if there is still conflict I generally exit and write to corporate. I am saddened that confrontation has become routine for me.

“Fake is as old as the Eden Tree,” said Orson Welles. He is right.  I returned recently from eight years in China where nothing can be trusted to be as it appears. And the benefits for manufacturers to sell bogus products is not different than the motivation for a pet owner scamming their way into a hotel or onto an airplane with Fluffy or Spike to avoid the extra fees associated with bringing a furry companion.

So, what is there to do? One highly respected service dog group is circulating a petition to bring the Justice Department into the fray. They want the bogus registries shut down. But, I am not for that. Where there is an illegal will, there is a way and people will circumvent the law in an absence of true standards.

I propose a national conference on standards, training and registry that brings together hotels, restaurants, law enforcement, the ADA, trainers, service dog agencies and people like me with a vested interest in peaceful coexistence and accommodation. In the absence of agreement on what constitutes a service dog the problem will persist.

I envision a national hotline, a real registry site for dogs in training and who have passed a certification exam, national support for psychiatric patients who need training in social interactions with a dog, training seminars in conflict resolution for service staff, law enforcement and so on…

Education is the key…

 

Postscript:

Today, I was at a coffee shop and a woman asked me a question that sounded much more like an accusation: “What is wrong with you?” I took it in stride and replied with in my usual sardonic fashion. But, she represents a large percentage of Americans who have no idea why an able looking individual might need a dog. Imagine if her first encounter had been an aggressive fraud….

 

Thank you

20130819-102847.jpg

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/

PTSD: Post Traumatic Sarcasm Display

I went through another evaluation this week at the VA. The exams themselves are pretty stressful and could aid or assassinate your disability rating.My diagnosis is older than the cavalry and I figure that telling the truth gives me less to to remember and then stress over….The VA uses a Global Assessment of Functioning Scale (GAF) in part to determine your disability level. The real scale goes like this:

91 – 100
Person has no problems OR has superior functioning in several areas OR is admired and sought after by others due to positive qualities

81 – 90
Person has few or no symptoms. Good functioning in several areas. No more than “everyday” problems or concerns.
71 – 80
Person has symptoms/problems, but they are temporary, expectable reactions to stressors. There is no more than slight impairment in any area of psychological functioning.
61 – 70
Mild symptoms in one area OR difficulty in one of the following: social, occupational, or school functioning. BUT, the person is generally functioning pretty well and has some meaningful interpersonal relationships.
51 – 60
Moderate symptoms OR moderate difficulty in one of the following: social, occupational, or school functioning.
41 – 50
Serious symptoms OR serious impairment in one of the following: social, occupational, or school functioning.
31 – 40
Some impairment in reality testing OR impairment in speech and communication OR serious impairment in several of the following: occupational or school functioning, interpersonal relationships, judgment, thinking, or mood.
21 – 30
Presence of hallucinations or delusions which influence behavior OR serious impairment in ability to communicate with others OR serious impairment in judgment OR inability to function in almost all areas.
11 – 20
There is some danger of harm to self or others OR occasional failure to maintain personal hygiene OR the person is virtually unable to communicate with others due to being incoherent or mute.
1 – 10
Persistent danger of harming self or others OR persistent inability to maintain personal hygiene OR person has made a serious attempt at suicide.

I checked with several vets and found that GAF corresponds loosely to disability rating as follows:

1-20 = 100% or $2,527 a month and free medical care at the VA

30-50 = 50-70% or $356 to $1,161 a month and free medical care at the VA

60 might rate you at 30% if other factors are an issue. That would give you 30% disability and $356 a month and limited care at the VA

So, you can see that the VA leprechauns guard the golden gates of Brigadoon pretty well…

So, time for a little fun…

I stumbled across several spoofs of the GAF as it relates to the VA and I decided to modify one for you. It is not to make light of the disorder, but to spoof a broken system. Like my mom used to say: You have to laugh to keep from crying…

VA GAF

91 – 100 Not much happening and you can tolerate most stress very easily. Your spouse is away for a couple of days and you sneak your dog into the bedroom. One of your kids is wearing his pants below his underwear, but still talks about going to Brown University.

81 – 90 Some minor setbacks. You are late with your AT&T bill but, screw ’em, they have turned into a monopoly again anyway. You have spent $300 more in overages on hold with the VA about your claim. You think Siri is beginning to understand your needs. The dog has wet on the bedroom carpet, but it is dark enough she’ll never notice.

71 -80 AT&T is texting you. You dictate replies to them through Siri. The teachers strike has the kids at home 24/7 and you tell them that if you hear Gotye one more time they will just be somebody that you used to know.

61 – 70 AT&T has discontinued service. Your artillery ears can barely hear the high pitched ringtone on your Cricket phone. The dog has hemorrhoids and drags his butt all the time. The kids duct-taped the neighbor boy to a stolen shopping cart, pushed him into the forest preserve pond and uploaded their Jackass spoof to Youtube. The police are trying to call your old number. You miss Siri: You wanted to ask her why a boxing ring is square.

51 – 60 Your kids have decided to enlist in the military in lieu of jail time. You and the dog howl in harmony. You’d play drinking games if there was any booze left. Cooking distracts you from NCIS and just isn’t worth the effort. The VA has told Homeland Security about your threats.

41 – 50 Your wife has decided to move back in with her dysfunctional family. The VA Homeless program will not accept you as long as you have 3 more months before your bank actually evicts you. You think you can teach the dog to dance and audition for America’s Got Talent. The sun is getting noisier every morning.

31 – 40 The only thing that gets you off the couch is chest pains. You are sure the dog is talking to the cat about you. You asked the cute activist next door to occupy your underpants. The police have your new number.

21 – 30 You siphoned gas from the neighbor’s leaf blower and are going to fix this problem once and for all. The ungrateful dog criticizes you on Twitter and your Klout score hits an all time low.

11 – 20 They move you to a facility where the WWII vets keep trying to get you to surrender. The VA finally approved your claim, but appointed your ex-wife as custodian of your affairs. She promises to give you money for Bingo. You start a blog, because the voices in your head NEED TO BE HEARD. They don’t change your diapers nearly as often as before.

0 – 10 The nurses refuse to take you to the bathroom until you stop yelling, “FIRE IN THE HOLE” and your kids have no more room in their closets for your Afghans sweaters. Your VA claims adjudicator is promoted to regional director for his efficiency. You and reality dissolve your civil union.

Dog Them….

“As soon as one promises not to do something, it becomes the one thing above all others that one most wishes to do.”
― Georgette Heyer

The conventions for America’s two biggest political parties are over. Despite the fact that Honey Boo Boo and NFL Football brought in bigger audiences, tens of millions tuned in to cheer, jeer or better understand who to vote for in November. Both conventions made frequent reference to American veterans and spoke with passion about their care and concern for military families and especially for those injured in service to America. Despite all the bi-partisan passion and genuine intentions the VA is getting worse, not better, at handling the needs of veterans. Much needed transitional aids are mired down in bureaucracy or about to eliminated altogether by the VA. Intentions do not equal action.

This week, the VA announced in the Federal Register, via 60+ pages, that it will no longer cover the cost of service dogs assigned to people with post-traumatic stress disorder. The VA claims there is not enough evidence to support the medical need for these dogs.

“Although we do not disagree with some commenters’ subjective accounts that mental health service dogs have improved the quality of their lives, VA has not yet been able to determine that these dogs provide a medical benefit to veterans with mental illness,” the VA said. Anyone who has worked in the field knows this is a baseless assertion. The real reason for eliminating the dogs is likely financial.

The Federal Register estimated that only 100 dogs would be certified this year when every service dog group I contacted said that growing demand already outstrips available resources. Just at Ft. Carson’s Wounded Warrior Program, says Diane Vertec of Freedom Service Dogs, “The population is growing exponentially. We feel like a dog can help a vet meet physical challenges but, more importantly, can really, really help them overcome a lot of the mental instability that they’re feeling.” FSD trains about 40-45 dogs per year and there are about 450 soldiers in the Wounded Warrior Battalion at Fort Carson.

In the Stars and Stripes, Lindsey Stanek, the CEO of Paws and Stripes, a New Mexico-based nonprofit dedicated to providing service dogs for military veterans, said she finds the Federal Register’s conclusions “preposterous,” adding that the demand among veterans for service dogs far outweighs VA estimates. “We have a wait list that exceeds 600, and we’re just one organization.” The rules will stay in effect until the VA has a chance to study the efficacy of service dogs in PTSD. By then, after adding on the 12-18 months of waiting time for a trained dog, a vet might be 4-6 years into his disability.

I called the VA last week to get in under the wire and get Gander covered by the program. After unsuccessfully querying to seven departments at a local VA Hospital I phoned the national medical information help line at the VA. The VA suggested I call the hospital. I then contacted my PTSD doctor and scheduled and appointment. She has long supported my need for a dog and has seen it change other veteran’s lives. She placed an order for evaluation with the prosthetics department who then scheduled me to be evaluated by the physical therapy department. After my evaluation, in October, physical therapy will send my requirements for a dog to the prosthetics department who will then send it on to the VA in Washington, DC. The VA will decide whether or not I should have a dog. If approved, the prosthetics department will then “order” the dog I will already have by that time. This might all be moot anyway if the regulation goes into effect at the end of this month.

The VA does not pay for the dog, which Freedom Service Dogs spends $20-25,000 dollars to train. But, they will cover major medical issues for Gander. The hospital explains it like this: The dog is equipment and they don’t pay for routine maintenance, buy will repair “it” if it breaks. And if a vet’s heart is broken by the loss of his equipment?

So,there is no money. Veterans can train their own battle buddies, right? Not so. The VA also proposes to block non certified dogs admission to its facilities. Those dogs who have helped vets carry oxygen bottles, or detect seizures are equipment non-gratis in the hospital . No attempt was made by the legal beagles who drafted the document to provide for those veterans who depend on their companions and rarely leave home without them.

Illinois defines a Service Animal this way:
“The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) defines a service animal as any guide, signal dog, or other animal individually trained to provide assistance to a person with a disability. An animal fitting this description is considered a service animal under the ADA regardless of whether the animal is licensed or certified by state or local government.” There are stiff fines for refusing service to a disabled person with a service animal regardless of its certification. The VA sees it differently.

To make matters worse: The Tampa VA has been working with several Assistance Dogs of America certified trainers and providing some cash to agencies if they will participate in a multi-year study program. The VA has foisted several unrealistic expectations on trainers like requiring them to sign documents stating their dogs will not misbehave during their placements. Some trainers are considering opting out of the study because the VA has also tried to micromanage their programs.

Jonathan Swift said that promises and pie-crust are made to be broken. I say that if politicians push veterans out on the front lines of their re-election battles, the least they can do is turn intentions into fulfilled promises.
Help them here:
I have put up petition at Change.org Please sign

;

You can read more about m journey to get a service dog here: http://veterantraveler.com/service-dog

Climbing back up to grace…

The ideal man bears the accidents of life with dignity and grace, making the best of circumstances.
–Aristotle

I woke today morning and performed a task as routine as morning ablutions: I opened my phone browser to Yahoo! Sports in search of the leaderboard for today’s Deutsche Bank golf tournament. I will explain: I did this every time Tiger played when I lived in China. It was a way, like music and bootleg movies, for me to stay tethered to something wholly American. Tiger was part of America’s sports greatness and he was a symbol of how I felt about my country.

The young LT. as budding golfer

I am one of the world’s worst golfers. No, really. I started the game in hopes of finding a way to “quiet the machine” and relax with the help of a sport that rightfully is known as a good walk spoiled. I had not thought of it as much of a sport until I learned it was easier to navigate a leech infested swamp at night with an M-16 above my head than to putt a tiny white ball into a PVC drain pipe. But, I digress…

Tiger Woods, son of a Special Forces Major, single-handed turned golf into an muscular, precision pursuit of excellence. Sure, John Daly could guzzle a beer, put his garish pants on backwards and hit 7 balls between cigarettes father than any other golfer on the tour, but Tiger was the one to watch. And people did it in such numbers that people who had never watched were devoted to golf where before they might have preferred to watch weeds grow in a vacant lot.

When Tiger’s life landed in the rough I couldn’t wait for the public to begin judging him again for his athletic prowess instead of his celebrity moral failings. He literally limped along for a couple of years as I continued to hope that rumors of his death were digitally exaggerated.

On my recent trip to Detroit I visited Piquette Square for Veterans. It is an apartment complex built on the site of an old auto factory. It gives permanent shelter to veterans who

Honor Guard at the Piquette Center mugging for the camera

At the center, I was introduced to Coniel Norman,a veteran and peer counselor employed by the VA to assist homeless vets there. I instinctively knew there was back story here. Coneil had just told me he attended the University of Arizona in the early seventies and I guessed by his height and powerfully large hands that he had been a basketball player. I just didn’t know how great an athlete he had been: Coneil, whose nickname was “popcorn” due to his rapid-fire accuracy, is still Arizona’s record holder for points scoring average in a season. He was drafted in the NBA’s second round and played three seasons: Two with the 76ers and then one with the San Diego Clippers, after a two year stint in the Continental Basketball Association (CBA). After being released by the Clippers in 1979, Norman enlisted in the military and served four years. He left in 1983 and then played professional basketball in Europe for seven seasons. The man who was once lauded by an opposing coach ( he described Coniel Norman as the “finest pure shooter” he had ever seen), saw his basketball career end when he was injured in a serious car accident on the Autobahn.

Time passed and Coneil eventually lost his way via drugs and alcohol. Homeless, he reached out to his family who supported him through rehabilitation. He now lives and works at the Veterans Center.

When you are one of the best at what you do, there is little place to go but down. And the people who cheered your successes are not always there when you descend. Worse yet, they turn their disappointment into anger and add considerable weight to to the already heavy burden that is recovery from injury, personal loss, or misdeeds.

That Tiger has won more events this year than the average professional can hope for in a lifetime of golf, while under such close scrutiny and subject to such blistering critique (just read some of the comments below any Yahoo! article on Woods), is a triumph on its own merits. Even if he fails to live up to fan and sports writer expectations by surpassing Jack Nicklaus for the number of majors won, his achievements are legendary and his records will likely stand long after his detractors have left this life. Hoping one day to see him play.

Coneil’s impact on the world now extends beyond the record board at Arizona. There will be veterans who will remember him as someone who returned hope and sobriety to their lives. I could not be prouder that I was able to shake the hand of an ideal man.

—————————————————-

;

;

Today’s call to action is a little selfish for the first time in 9 years of blogging: I could use a little help in getting to Denver to pick up Gander: http://Indiegogo.com/veterantraveler/

Take a Gander…

“Dogs are minor angels…”

–Jonathan Carroll

It seems including a service dog in my logo wasn’t just wishful thinking: I was on my way home from watching Frank & Robot yesterday when I received a call from Freedom Service Dogs in Denver telling me I was soon to be blessed with a new traveling companion. It was a touch of synchronicity, because the film was, in part, about companionship and our dependence on others, no matter how tough or self reliant we imagine ourselves to be…

I have had a series of best friends of different breeds. My dogs and I have always viewed the world together with a slight turn of the head before heading off together to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods or a sunset over the lake. Dogs are charitable sidekicks: always seeming to know what not to say at just the right time.

This will be new for me. Unconditional love is part of a dog’s DNA, so I feel a little guilty about asking more of a friend who, even without training, will do more for me than I will ever do for him.

FSD tells me that Gander is the name of my PTSD savvy buddy-to-be. He is a chocolate, mixed breed who was rescued from a shelter before being enlisted in the service and trained by FSD’s extraordinary team of handlers.

FSD was founded in 1987 by P.J. and Michael Roche after a disabling car accident that personally informed them about the tremendous need for canine helpers. The program has strategic alliances with the VA, Denver University’s Institute for Human/Animal Connection and the Graduate School of Social Work and Assistance Dogs International a training standards organization.

I was in China and in the midst of my physical and PTSD symptoms worsening I found myself rescuing local strays and in doing so I noticed improvement in my affect and mobility. I had seen videos of pets being brought to nursing homes and prisons to combat depression, but I had no idea that it was a fast evolving treatment strategy in the U.S. for veterans. Soon after, I watched a video about FSD and began to explore the possibility of a service dog for myself. I was sure that a match for me would be life changing.

FSD answered my email the same day and I downloaded the application. FSD is appropriately cautious and very thorough. Each of the 35-40 dogs they train each year costs from $20-25,000 for its 9-12 months of specialized training and is then gifted, at no cost, to the veteran. Before receiving a dog, the recipient must meet eligibility requirements, wait 12-18 months for a match and then attend three weeks of training with handlers and the dog.

The professional staff considers themselves to be”dog people” first and foremost. That means each veteran sign contracts that call for high-level care of the service dog. FSD makes a lifetime training and care commitment to both the dog and his human.

The application process was a several week journey for me. I secured the required medical evaluation and certification from my VA doctor, finished my personal statement, and took it with me to FSD in Denver for the required face-to-face interview and matching procedure. For matching, the handlers brought in poodles, labs, and a gentle giant of a dog they appropriately called Zeus. They watched carefully to see how dogs and I got along. I not-so-secretly hoped for a black lab. But, one look at Gander’s intelligent, confident, scruffy face yesterday and I couldn’t remember why I wanted a different breed of dog.

I will be heading for Denver in September to meet and attend school with Gander. In the interim, he is being taught to to do specific tasks the team identified for me:

  • Retrieving items to my hand
  • Turning lights on when I enter my house
  • “Check it out” or “clear the room”: Having him check for anyone else that might be there.
  • Find the phone to retrieve it in an emergency situation.
  • Find a person when needed
  • Brace to get up: He will help me get back up if I fall. (When I first spoke to FSD I had real trouble with autoimmune arthritis issues. They are better now. )
  • Block/Post: He will stand in front or behind me to create “safe” space in public
  • Lean and interact: He will lean on me to keep me grounded and attending to what is around me. I hear he loves to lean in and kiss…
  • He will interact with me in ways that will help pull me out of night terrors or nightmares
  • He will heel very close to my right leg (it is usually the left) when I am walking so that he can help me walk across pedestrian bridges and stay more in the middle away from real or imagined danger
  • My life has already changed. I’m walking a little brisker and I’m attending to people with dogs the way an expectant father cops at infants in the supermarket. School in Colorado can’t get here fast enough. As Corey Ford said: “Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.”
    My indiegogo campaign for Gander:
    http://indiegogo. com/veterantraveler

I will be telling you more about my minor angel in weeks to come. In the meantime, please follow FSD on Twitter: http://twitter.com/freedomsvcdogs and visit their service dog website to see how you might help.

;

;

VA Math

I have a friend who was rated by the VA recently for a several serious medical conditions brought on by military service. His ratings were:

Diabetes brought on by Agent Orange exposure:     80%

 

PTSD from numerous firefights:                                 50%

Lost of vision in one eye:                                                30%

Degenerative disc disease caused by multiple injuries while serving as a paratrooper over 8 years:                                                                                  20%

Hearing Loss in both ears:                                             10%

Final Disability rating by the VA :                                 90%

Total Award:                                                                      $1,661 a month

Surprised? I will tell you below, after a short digression, how that is possible. Chinese math has nothing on the VA version….

When I was stationed at Ft. Sam Houston I roomed with a college educated draftee who was also teaching at the Academy of Health Sciences. He was less than enthused about having to wear an enlisted man’s uniform and was generally part of G2 (Intelligence) for any anti-authority prank that was pulled in our department. I came home one day to find him reading  The Officer’s Handbook. When I asked him why he had bought it he replied, “Sound philosophy, Lon: Know your enemy.”

While I don’t consider the VA an enemy, for there are a host of caring and dedicated individuals employed there, the system is clearly broken and in dire need of repair. To reform a system you must understand it. From time to time I will post articles to help you understand VA benefits and some of the barriers vets encounter as they try their hand at the toughest confidence course of their careers. I have found that few vets really know how it works so, I will try to explain in plain language.

The VA awards benefits based on a rating decision made by a specialist in one of 16 regional offices. The specialist begins with the most severe condition first. In this case the diabetes. He rated the vet at 80% disabled. Note: He had to be pretty sick to receive a rating that high. Next, he is rated for PTSD. 50% indicates he is functional, but debilitated. So, the rater now applies VA math: At 80% disabled he is thought to have 20% usable resources remaining. So, he is thought to be only 50% of the good 20% disabled. That ups his disability rating by 10%. Then the rater applies the formula to his disc disease: He has 10% usability left and 30% of the remaining 10 points of usability allows him to add 3% more to his total rating. His hearing is rated at 10% (the maximum they allow for claims) and that brings him to a grand total of 94.96% disabled according to VA math. And the VA rounds up at 95% and rounds down at 94.9% so, he is 90% disabled. and paid at that rate.

He/she can, if completely unemployable, receive compensation at the 100% rate ($2700), but must apply and be evaluated again. That takes another 6-16 months. It can be sped up if the veteran is certified as homeless by the VA, but the documents proving that could take 3-6 months to be entered into the file. The VA can give 100% unemployability, but does not seem to very often. One vet who had fought for his 80% rating for over a decade had not worked in ten years. He is still waiting for an unemployability decision.

So, for those of you who thought our wounded warriors were headed off to Aruba with their largesse, just do the math… It is difficult to get benefits and the ratings often vary wildly and do not always reflect the severity of the problem. A lot of money and personnel are being thrown at the problem. Here is hoping it works sometime before vets waiting for answers and benefits pass away.

I will post soon about how the VA arrives at a rating for each disability. That too should be an eye opener.