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….

 

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.

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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/

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.