Navy Master at Arms 1st Class Orlando Rivera came back from his second deployment in Iraq in 2009, and thought he was okay. But he had seen too much and experienced terrible losses. There were the deaths of military friends with whom he shared a deep bond. And then the IED that exploded on his convoy of Humvees, killing several more comrades and resulting in his own traumatic brain injury (TBI), hearing loss, and blown-out left leg.
In the months after his deployment, Rivera started experiencing nightmares in the rare times he was able to sleep. He was unable to function as he used to, and had uncharacteristic mood swings. Others described him as a zombie. He was sent for evaluations and diagnosed with chronic PTSD.
But even with helpful treatments, life was getting away from Rivera. His PTSD was getting worse. It got to the point where he couldnt bear to be in crowds or even large stores. I couldnt even go out with my kids and wife,” he recalls. “Wed go to Wal-Mart and in five minutes Id be in a cold sweat and teary and panicky. Id have to go back to the car and sit with my 7-year-old son and listen to music.
During intensive treatment with other veterans at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, MD, a woman came by every day with a Golden Retriever therapy dog. Rivera loves dogs, and had even been a military working dog handler for a while. He gravitated toward the animal. He and others noticed that his best days were the ones where he got to interact with the dog. He realized that an assistance dog could be the answer to his problems, so he set out to find one.
It was a long road, but when he learned of Southeastern Guide Dogs Paws for Patriots program, he knew hed struck gold. They just reached out and wanted to work with me to do whatever they could to help me, says Rivera, who will retire in March after 20 years in the Navy.
Last month, Rivera traveled from Bethesda to Florida to get matched with a Paws for Patriots dog. As soon as he met Sweet Pea, a butterscotch-colored Golden Retriever/Lab mix (a Goldador), he knew theyd found the perfect dog for him. It was like wed been friends for years, he says. We bonded immediately.
Sweet Pea is tuned in to Rivera. When hes having a nightmare or thrashing around during a night terror, she nudges and paws at him to wake him up. And she is a tremendous help during what he calls daydreams, when he disappears from this world and is back in Iraq:
She jumps up from sleeping and hits my hand with her nose for me to pet her and she will keep going until I pet her,” Rivera says. “Or if I’m sitting in a position that I cant pet her she will jump up and hug me and lick my face. There have been times where she has done this and rested her head on my shoulder and gives a hug.
Its a wonderful feeling when she does this because it diverts my focus to her, and you cant help but smile at her Golden Retriever sad face. I cant help but smile every time I look at Sweet Pea, whether shes awake or asleep. I’m just so thankful that she has come into my life and is helping not just myself but my family as well.
Because of Sweet Pea, Rivera is able to face the world again and be at his familys side for outings. Now, when he goes to Wal-Mart, I have to be dragged out, he says. Crowds and stores are not a problem with Sweet Pea around. Instead of worrying someone might ambush him or startle him, he just looks to Sweet Pea. If she is calm, he knows he can be at ease. If someone is walking toward him and he feels uncomfortable, he tells Sweet Pea block and shell go between him and the person. He can tell her watch and shell look in the direction of any nearby activity. He can read her face about whats going on, even if the activity is around the a corner or an aisle and he cant see it.
And yes, Sweet Pea is a champion hugger. Sometimes Rivera needs a hug and asks for one, but Sweet Pea can usually tell first, and offers a hug on her own, standing on her hind legs and reaching out and snuggling into him. Or if hes sitting down and a little anxious, shell try to climb on his lap. A 74-pound lap dog is a lot of dog, he laughs.
Rivera spoke openly with me because he wants to get the word out about Paws for Patriots so other veterans can find out about the program. Im just paying it forward, he says. It has been a life-changing experience for me, and I want to do my part to help other vets.
Southeastern Guide Dogs is a national organization established in 1982. Its main program, Paws for Independence, partners professionally trained guide dogs with people with visual impairments. Paws for Patriots has three missions: It provides guide dogs to veterans with visual impairments; Veteran Assistance Dogs (VAD) to veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (dogs receive specialized training along with training with their new handler when matched and lifetime follow-up care); and facility therapy dogs to military hospitals.
About a dozen Veteran Assistance Dogs have been placed since the program began in late 2010. The dogs for VAD and other non-guide-dog programs run by Southeastern Guide Dog were ones who didnt pass guide dog school. Theyre working dogs and want to have a job, explains spokeswoman Jennifer Bement. Just because these dogs werent cut out to be guide dogs doesnt mean they cant make a meaningful difference in someones life. We just have to find the right job for them to succeed.
Its a win-win. And there’s nothing like that on Veterans Day.
Looking for something dog-related to do to commemorate Veterans Day? Here are a few ideas:
Find an organization that helps military working dogs and their handlers on deployment, and see how you can help. One of my favorites is the United States War Dog Association. (Turn down your speakers before clicking the link if you don’t want to be startled by the music.) Among its many activities, the group sends really good care packages to deployed dogs and handlers via its Operation Military Care (K9) program.
Dog Bless You, explore.orgs philanthropic dog-loving community. Starting today, and for the next 11 days, the organization will donate one service dog per day to a war veteran suffering from PTSD.
Check out Jane Millers book, Healing Companions: Ordinary Dogs and Their Extraordinary Power to Transform Lives. The book focuses on several amazing dogs who have helped people profoundly improve their lives. Miller is a tremendous advocate for veterans, and volunteers her time training psychiatric service dogs for them. She suggests the following activity for Veterans Day:
Write to your senators and ask them to pass the Veterans Dog Training Therapy Act (VDTTA), but in a form that provides equal resources for those with PTSD and other invisible disabilities, and not just for those with physical limitations. “We still live in a culture that stigmatizes mental illness. Adequate financial support must be provided to all wounded warriors, whether physical or mental,” Miller says.
(Some background: The House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation last month that included the VDTTA. The Senate is next. The bill establishes a program that allows veterans with PTSD to train dogs for veterans with physical disabilities.These dogs could be shelter rescues, which would be pretty amazing. The trained dogs are then given to physically disabled veterans to help them with their daily activities. There are no provisions for the veterans with PTSD or TBI to have these dogs themselves.)
Read Daniela Caride’s excellent post on assistance dogs from a couple of days ago at her blog, the Daily Tail.
Watch the Hero Dog Awards on the Hallmark Channel tonight at 8 p.m. (7 Central). It’s the first major awards ceremony for hero dogs from every walk of life. The finalists in several categories, including military working dogs, gathered at a gala red-carpet event in Los Angeles last month for a very magical evening. I was there, and am looking forward to watching again from the comfort of my living room. Here’s the short video about a retired military working dog named Bino, and the work he’s still doing to save lives.
Add to this list! If you have organizations you’d like to suggest or activities not included above, include them in the comments below.