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.

Fetch: Travels With Gander

“We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take for us or spare us.”

Marcel Proust

I have wandered, not always lost, for most of my life. I have long said that I live in a dialectical solitude: I have purposely explored the far corners of life looking for truth and wisdom and believing it can be found in the most unlikely places. I look at everyone as a possible teacher and every place as a possible classroom. I often envy my friends who a resolute in their politics and have a fixed world view. I am sometimes jealous of my friends who have lived in one place the majority of their lives. Geographically searching for answers to endless questions can be lonely:  The distance between answers requires the patience and resolve of a seaman who knows he may never see land again and suffers less at the hand of rough waters than the introspection and doubt that is a great part of any quest.

I have to do this trip. It is as much for my own health as it is a chance to expose people to the realities of suicide, trauma and the tools required to survive invisible wounds. It is a chance to open doors and ready a welcome for the thousands soon to be heading home from conflict and trauma. It is the chance to maybe save a life or two.

I hope you will come along. I will be writing here on the blog and in newsletters more and using Facebook less. Their misguided moves toward stockholder governance and increased revenues with diminished regard for the communities they serve threatens the “social” in social media and has prompted me to return to more conventional methods of communication.

Thank you for being part of this journey so far. Especially to those of you who have suffered along with me as I learned how to execute the business parts of this adventure. You’ve been kind beyond measure and I ask with great humility for you to travel with me once more on the most important trip to date.

Again, my philosophy is “Something for something.” I have put together some great perks for helping with this next book. I have made them easier to provide and distribute since the last adventure. Here is the link to participate: FETCH: TRAVELS WITH GANDER

Operation Fetch

Operation FetchThe Service Dog Education and Assistance Foundation endorsed art and education journey

  • “Fetch: Travels With Gander” will feature 22  interviews with the families of veterans lost to home-front battles with PTSD and trauma recovery and contain takes of people we meet along the way who now know Post Traumatic Success as survivors of Trauma: war, accidents, sexual abuse…
  • Since the publication of In Dogs We Trust (a successful Indiegogo funded campaign) Gander, Service Dog and Veteran Traveler Lon Hodge have traveled 17 states  in service to veterans and trauma survivors. They have visited dozens of hospitals, community groups, and businesses advocating for veterans, trauma survivors, service dogs, and alternatives to suicide. Since the book Gander, through his Facebook page, has helped place dozens of survivors with service dogs, donated thousands of dollars worth of books to veterans and senior citizens hospitalized, and volunteered hundreds of hours of crisis help, and dozens of internet media and community seminars and workshops
  • This next book will personalize 22 of the stories of the 8,000 veterans lost to suicide annually in America. During the journey they will chronicle the Post Traumatic Successes of those who have won their battles with pain and isolation.
  • We will develop a PACK of  community members and carry out their charitable wishes: Planned Acts of Community Kindness will permit Gander and Veteran Traveler to identify survivors in short term (and legitimate) need that the PACK can easily help directly and with confidence.
  • We will publicly perform a Taps Ceremony nightly in every city we visit during which we read the names of 22 veterans lost to suicide. That is the number of veterans who are lost daily to self inflicted wounds.

What We Need & What You Get

It is simpler this year:

  • Our needs are meager. We need the money to travel to interviews and to take care of gas, room and board during the travel. And we need a few items prior to departing: Suicide prevention and awareness brochures, PTSD and service dog literature, a simple movie capable camera, and Portable Bluetooth speakers and microphones.
  • The perks are simpler this year 😉 We learned last year that we needed to simplify our giveaways and make them immediately accessible to supporters. This year’s perks are already in stock and will be mailed immediately after the campaign ends. We have also added in postage costs.
  • All Tees, In Dogs We Trust Books, Coins and Coffee will be sent immediately.

The Impact

We hope to spread hope, educate the general public and lower the suicide rate among veterans and others through education and greater awareness. One of the biggest challenges facing PTSD and trauma sufferers is the stigmas still attached to them. Only by being more openly public can we overcome that….

  •  Over 300 people have emailed or messaged us this year to say that Gander has helped them in some way. We feel compelled to continue the journey
  •  This is our 3rd Indigogo campaign in 3 years. We learn more each time….
  •  There but for the grace of God and Gander go I… I hope we can, in our small way, make a difference.
  • Here is the best of the many interviews we did this year: Gander, Service Dog
  • Here is a fantastic article by Rick Kambic that made the front page of the Lake County Tribune: Chicago Article

Other Ways You Can Help

Some people just can’t contribute, but that doesn’t mean they can’t help:

  • Get the word out and make some noise about your campaign.
  • Use the Indiegogo share tools!
  • Share our updates on our Facebook wall at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog
  • Invite us to come to your town ( veterantraveler at veterantraveler.com )
  • Help us identify families to interview. Please use the address above
  • Just be a positive member of our community there…
  • Read our blog at http://veterantraveler.com

And that’s all there is to it!

The Battle Begins: SEAL Frog vs Army Dog

Frog Dog Beard OffAn epic inter-service, inter-species battle to raise awareness about veteran suicide, service dogs and PTSD. http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff
Gander, a 3 1/2 year old Labradoodle is a battle buddy for an Army veteran in Chicago. Gander, with an online community of over 300,000 friends distinguished himself as a real hero when he saved a young girl last year from a charging stray and now does triple duty as a therapy dog, service dog and PTSD/suicide awareness advocate. he visits VA hospitals, nursing homes and hospices around the country. Rescued from death row in Colorado, Gander was trained by a prison program and then paroled to Freedom Service Dogs in Denver and trained for service as a mobility and PTSD dog. Gander is listed as co-curator for, In Dogs We Trust, a collection of inspirational dog stories by NYT bestselling authors. Learn more about Gander in this short PBS Video here: http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2014/02/26/ptsd-service-dog
Rob DuBois is a speaker, teacher, coach and consultant who was labeled a “smart power authority” while assisting U.S., British and Iraqi forces in Baghdad. He is a multilingual Navy SEAL with operational experience in more than thirty countries. Rob is author of the book, Powerful Peace. Rob has presented his “Think like the Adversary” workshop to military units in the hottest combat zones, Fortune 500 corporate customers, and government agencies. He has served on the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s Senior Integration Group and directed operations for the DoD’s Red Team. Founder and CEO of SEAL of Peace Consulting, he lives with his family in the Washington, DC area and works anywhere on the planet.
The contest, co-sponsored by Dogington Post will run from March 1 to March 20th online. You can vote for the Navy Frog or the Army Dog at http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff  and add pictures of your own bearded companion, “bearding” photos or best human/dog pair shot. Prizes will be handed out daily and grand prize winners announced on March 20th in Denver at the Watering Bowl, a dog friendly pub. The loser of the contest will have all hair, except his trademark beard, shorn off. The public can participate by uploading their own beard, bearded pair shots or “bearding” photos here: http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff
The event will coincide with a book signing for In Dogs We Trust with five of the book’s author’s on hand and several invited celebrities. All proceeds from the event will benefit dog and veteran charities.
Follow the events on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog or here on veterantraveler.com
Follow Rob at https://www.facebook.com/SEALofPeace
And remember to upload your pics and vote for your favorite beard!

ALL proceeds from the sale of items during the event (to be posted later) will go to one of four wounded warrior charities.

Register now for the event:

Book Launch/Beard Off

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….

 

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

 

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.

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.

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My PTSD (part 2)

Several people emailed and messaged me following my last post on PTSD. They thanked me for articulating their feelings. I am humbled by the number of people still unable to give voice to the dysfunction and depression in their lives caused by trauma and I respect and honor that they are not ready to go public with their pain. I promise that this will be the last of my laundry list style posts, but I will visit my own struggle, past and present, in posts to come. I will shed light on the “lost years” via stories about the people who helped and those who capitalized on my weakness. Thank you for writing. And please continue to write to me. Please comment. It is part and parcel of my recovery.

Anais Nin said, “People living deeply have no fear of death.” It’s true that most of us who backpack one or two standard deviations farther out toward the horizon have little time to ruminate about death. We were too busy living it…

Wounded writers, artists, athletes, explorers, abuse victims and warriors have one thing in common: We don’t fear tumbling into the abyss again as much as we are terrified of returning to routine and normalcy after trauma has dilated our senses. As the old joke goes: It is not the fall that will kill you, it’s the sudden stop. The body, no longer protected by endorphins, neurosteroids and adrenaline screaming into every cell, is suddenly left without properly functioning emotional or physical battlement to help protect against the worst memories of our descent and of the collision: these are sights, smells and sounds that throw the body into full defensive mode and at the most inappropriate of times.

Part of the issue can be explained by classical conditioning. Pavlov’s Dogs salivated every time a tone, that had been paired with food many times, sounded. The same can happen with trauma. Everything nearby can trigger a chemical memonic. And you cannot simply will, meditate or exercise away this kind of anxiety.

One unethical experiment from years past demonstrates the negative biological power of adversity. Humans are hardwired to be afraid of two things: heights and loud noises. Knowing this, experimenters presented an infant with a very huggable looking rabbit. But, each time the child reached for the animal the behavioral scientists would crash a large cymbal behind him.He would fall forward in sobs and tears and in no time at all the child panicked at the sight of anything resembling a rabbit. His system had been trained to react. No talk therapy was going to convince a traumatized baby that rabbits were anything but terrifying. It is no different in sexual abuse, domestic violence, accidents or combat. Those things in and around the stress become associated with it. The generalizations can be specific and narrow or disturbingly broad and can emotionally charge other things seemingly unrelated to the original event: sights, sounds, colors, time of day….. And these episodes can become so debilitating, they will destroy your trust that anything or a anywhere can be safe and you are left believing that it might be better to take your own life than to be visited by more anxiety or depression. Our willingness to face adversity in the first place is not always equal to our ability to handle its consequences. And because it is biological in nature it should not reflect poorly on the victim’s character or strength. Take for example the admission by Medal of Honor recipient Dakota Myer this week. He was so debilitated by his experiences that he attempted suicide. He is a hero again for talking about the price he paid for his bravery.

A couple of weeks ago I was the first car behind a particularly grisly accident. An open top jeep had flipped, rolled and then ploughed its way from the interstate into a forest preserve boundary fence. The driver, a young man in his twenties, was in shock and thankfully couldn’t feel the multiple compound fractures, bones protruding through his skin. I called 911, rendered simple aid and kept him warm and reassured. It wasn’t until after the ambulance left that I noticed how fast my heart beat of how shallow my own breathing had become. And I wept as much to release the scene, mourn my own past traumas and because I was incredibly sad for a man whose life was altered much too soon. It is my nature to run toward adversity and danger, but only if there is little tome between the event and my intervention. Any delay, and stress will debilitate me.

My anxiety has spread to things I once loved and to tasks that I once performed with ease. On my trip to Detroit I made a trip to Canada to test my passport. I had laundered it in a commercial washer and since it looked a bit worse for the wear, I did not know if it would pass border inspections. It did, but caused me irrational tension during the discovery. I told a friend when I returned how nervous the experience had made me and she replied that she understood because most of us are a little jolted by immigration inspections. Yes, but it is a matter of degrees. My resting heart rate is now 95-110. A few short years ago it was 46-48. To hit the gas and spur a corporeal engine already running all-out is nothing short of terrifying.

Since the 90s I have daily experienced most of these symptoms:

–Insomnia. It is hard to get to sleep and hard to stay asleep.

–Night Terrors. At least 2-3 times a week I wake almost numb with fear though cannot remember what I was dreaming about. I sit up in bed in the midst of dreams and for minutes at a time before I wake do not know where I am. This can be pretty upsetting for anyone spending the night.

–Reactivity to loud noises. I go to the theater often, but at hours when few people are there so they won’t be bothered when I leave to recover from the THX or Dolby blarings of a Hollywood movie. When my chest hurts so badly I think I might be having a heart attack, I head for the lobby. Theater staff know me by name now and are kind beyond measure. Car horns, intense arguments, and alarms can bring me to the brink of panic.

–Crowds. I will avoid large gatherings. I have turned down over 100 speaking opportunities in recent years. Where I was a keynote presenter in years past it is rare for me to even be a panelist. And if I do participate I have to work so hard to stay calm that I am exhausted by the end of a presentation. The response cost is terribly high. I become disoriented and confused in traffic and busy malls. It is best for me to avoid them. China is a bit problematic as it is always crowded, everywhere.

–Sudden contact from someone I do not know. I am not proud of the fact that I have wrist locked, hip tossed or otherwise subdued several people over the last few years after being surprised or assaulted. I am not proud of the fact that I have put people on the ground from Tiananmen Square to Stockholm, Sweden. Well, except for that thief at the Summer Palace …But, I digress. Even were I not a Hapkido Master, my extreme fight or flight reactions would make me a dangerous adversary.

–Heights. I used to love rappelling backwards off a helicopter skid. Now, I cannot cross a pedestrian bridge without a crippling rush of adrenaline. I visited the Dunhuang Buddhist Grottoes on the Silk Road this year and had incredible trouble navigating simple scaffolding only 1-2 floors above the ground. I am humiliated when I have to chart a course down the center of an overpass and run across to keep from being stranded in the middle by fear.

–Creativity. I stopped writing poetry the same year I won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in Literature. The medication I had to take robbed me of ambition and original thought. The struggle is whether to be stress free, but with a chemical lobotomy and the artificial anger that it creates, or to fight anxiety ocean with a sword. The latter seems a bit more heroic.

–Coffee, Epinephrine… More than a single cup of coffee may well render me too stressed to drive and conversation comes to a halt because I am trying to keep my body from accelerating into a panic attack. I don’t like shots and won’t ingest anything that might hype me up.

–Memory. I once had a nearly eidetic memory for certain things. Years after they graduated I could tell students where they sat in my class and could remember names and details about their lives even if we were not close. These days I have trouble with recall and it is not unusual for me to forget the simplest things, much less long term data (CRS)…This is likely due to the side effects of the Klonopin doctors put me on years ago and because parts of the brain are actually destroyed when under constant pressure. The desk clerks where I live have spare keys at the ready and have retrieved dozens of things I have left behind. They now assume that any lights left on in the parking lot are mine. They kindly say that all is not right in the universe if I have remembered everything. I have a number of task lists, but they do little good when you can’t locate the list 😉

–Egress. I study a room to make sure I can exit and can defend myself if a problem occurs. I do not need my back against the wall, but I need a clear field of vision. I have noticed at the VA that new hospital staff will often walk directly behind some of the vets. The docs will look puzzled when the patient stops and glares as he lets them pass. Nobody likes to be “snuck up on” but PTSD sufferers like me are especially hypervigilant and much easier to threaten.

–Hypervigilant. I love the Psychic Detective show on TV as I am pretty similar to the protagonist. People watching has always been my hobby, and clinically I am a great diagnostician. These days, it is a survival response. I scan everyone in unfamiliar places. It is a threat assessment. That is why I frequent the same restaurants, gas stations and coffee shops day in and day out and get to know the people there. It is less tiring than being overly alert.

–Social Interaction. I am either too talkative or not talkative enough until I get to know you. I was a champion speaker and professional communicator. These days I’m just happy to survive a conversation. It is why I am anxious to get a service dog: A buffer and grounding tool when things are too much to handle. Too, I avoid conflict now. It has led to disastrous ends in some situations. In China unethical folks took great advantage of my detours around confrontation and I was cheated by a number of folks and always took the financial and reputational hits for the consequences of my avoidance. For the record: I own the failures and am still working to make amends where they are due. There are a handful of folks that should be aware that they are not yet off the hook for their transgressions.

–Confidence. Nothing will erode your confidence like this. To go from successfully competitive to incapacitated is a journey I pray you never take. And people will be sympathetic to those with physical difficulties, but suspicious and unforgiving with those struggling with mental health struggles.

My world view has changed because of this. I think the public and business worlds are basically bad, with a few good people in them. I am thankful to many of those few good and trustworthy people in my camp. It may sound devastating. And there are days that it is unbearable. The good news: I continue to learn how to accommodate for my issues while not expecting it from others. I will survive this as best I can. I am still competitive and determined, most days, that PTSD won’t deter me from finding a way through this while helping others in the process. It truly is about the journey and I intend to enjoy every bit of it I can.

Where self will comes in is this: It would be easy to give up and spend my days holed up like I was years ago afraid to go outside. But, to desensitize you must have experiences that train your body to let go of fear and let stimuli that once were your enemies assume neutral or helpful roles. Eleanor Roosevelt said that you gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing which you think you cannot do. I gave up Tae Kwon Do, Writing, Speaking, Teaching. Everything I have accomplished these years has been in spite of this goddamn disease.  More to come…

 

 

 

Today’s call to action:

Follow Patriot Paws, a service dog training organization that provides help to people with emotional and physical disability. They do charitable double duty by training prisoners how to train dogs. Their students have a 0% recidivism rate.

On Twitter: @patriotpaws

On Facebook: Patriot Paws

Running Into the Line of Fire

I drove to Chicago from Detroit this past week with corrective lenses though which my inner eyes could finally see a Midwest America. Six months ago my view was a distorted one, fed by television images of inner city violence and despair : From the highway Gary Indiana and Detroit all you see are the burned out dreams and bankrupt ambitions of the lunch bucket America of which I was so proud of in my youth.

Most people don’t get dare to get out of their cars in either city for fear of surrendering what little hope they might have left in their own ability to survive this time of angry divisions and doubts about a secure future. When Casinos and prisons are the only monuments to progress you can see, It’s probably best to put them in your rear view mirror. Or so I thought…

Flags everywhere were at half mast in memory of those murdered in Aurora. It was a five hour funeral procession of quiet cars and maybe I projected my own grief on truck stop patrons and restaurant workers, but it was a deeply somber day it seemed for all of America. And for one sad second I was grateful for a national tragedy that finally had us agreeing on something. Queen Elizabeth said on the occasion of Princess Diana’s death that grief is the price we pay for love. But, how we grieve and how we respond to crisis is what makes all the difference.

The stories of heroism in Colorado outnumber the tales of fear and flight. A soldier laid down his life for his girlfriend, a wounded victim helped rescue a mother and her child after her boyfriend fled, police and firemen hurried into the chaos despite not knowing if it was still safe to enter the theater.

Victor Frankel, a concentration camp survivor and eminent psychotherapist, believed we are hardwired to respond certain ways to danger and difficulty. There are children on the beach who will run at the sight of on oncoming wave, others will throw themselves into the water with screams of delight and a few, paralyzed by indecision will sit down and cry.

Frankl also spoke of what rescues us in times of chaos and oppression: a decision to help others through difficult times. Those that survived Nazi cruelty were those who spent their time in service to others. It is the most powerful of paradoxes: Altruism nourishes us like no food can and while we are giving of our time and talent for the betterment of others. In this digital age we can positively act out of character and defy our genetic leanings. There is little to fear.

Stories will follow soon of people I met who are brick, by brick, rebuilding Detroit. And the work I saw being done by community organization like Southwest Solutions serving people from every demographic. They sense a need and search for solutions confident the resources will emerge to further their work. The apartment complex they constructed for Veterans should be a national model for returning warriors who lost their way home to dignity and productivity.

The purpose of this blog and my proposed trip across America became clearer in Detroit. It is not enough to chronicle the stories and successes of vets and vet groups. We are all united in our love for America, despite our political animosities; With the Olympics on this week, despite the failings of NBC, we are galvanized in our desire to elevate the status of our country in the eyes of the world; and the vast majority of Americans believe that veterans are worthy of salvage. That the all volunteer military pays its troops, that a Veterans Administration exists to care for those who served, that vets seem to be afforded discounts and courtesies civilians are not , should not blind us to their needs. It is not a level playing field: The VA is dangerously inept, only 3% of vets are finishing college after service, tens of thousands are in long lines waiting for benefits or medical care promised to them, discounts are only given when a service can be bought in the first place and while pay for officers is at acceptable levels our enlisted soldiers often live paycheck to paycheck with little to show for a hitch in the service beyond medical and psychological problems that impact them for a lifetime.

So, future these tales here will all contain a call to action of some kind. A way for us to contribute to something reconstructive, something good for veterans, a way to come together, if only for a brief moment, to improve the quality of our lives by recognizing the sacrifices of others. We can safely run into the line of fire to help those who did it for us.

To paraphrase Adrian Cronauer, the Armed Forces DJ whose story inspired Good Morning Vietnam,our flag, at half mast this week, did not represent a political point of view. Tragedy should not need to be the precursor for fraternity. The flags of mourning and draped over the shoulders of our athletes are symbol of our national unity. As should be every veteran who has ever donned a uniform in service to their country.

Today’s call to action: A daughter’s petition to the VA: a request for them to accelerate a benefit decision about a Vietnam Vet dying of liver cancer possibly linked to Agent Orange exposure.

http://www.change.org/petitions/veterans-affairs-approve-the-liver-transplant-of-vietnam-veteran-lucius-littlejohn#

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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.