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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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.