For this week’s blog, I am privileged to share with you another sacred story of a military veteran journeying with PTSD who found hope in the form of fur. It is my honor to introduce you to Kristopher and his service dog, Shera. A story of mutual rescuing. A story of strength and healing, bravely and openly shared for inspiration and for education. Those who also journey with PTSD can be inspired. Those who may not understand when they see a dog in a public setting can learn there is always more than we initially see. A quote by John Lubbock states “what we see depends mainly on what we look for”. I will ask you, what are you choosing to look for? May what you choose be with eyes of compassion and a voice of reverent silence ready to listen as unconditionally as dear Shera.
And then my soul saw you and it kind of went “Oh there you are. I’ve been looking for you” – Unknown
Nine hundred miles, give or take, separated her and I physically; yet, space could not keep us from our destiny. She took her first breaths of life in Tennessee while I was feeling squeezed until I could scarcely breath in New York City. She entered this life quickly learning she was not worthy while I, once worthwhile, was finding my sense of value fading. Not yet knowing love, she began traveling Northeast to find belonging. It is said opposites attract, though I think that it is more opposites find each other to form a whole. Soon we would meet, knowing in that instant our souls had just found home.
Shera was five months old when my eyes met hers, and her eyes whispered I am meant for you, and you are meant for me. She knew before I did what her role in my life was meant to be. I saw her as companion while she saw her ability to service my journey with PTSD. Two years after her adoption, we began our certified training. The certified training the formality. For Shera already knew how to listen to the rhythm of my heart when in irregular beat. If I was anxious, Shera was my mellow presence and her body on which I could lean. Her touch my reassurance that I was in safe keep. Or, if night gripped too tight, Shera the warrior to chase away the horrific dreams. Tap, tap, tap she would gently nudge until I would awake from those dark realities. Her beating heart my comfort until I could bring my entire being back into the bedroom. Until I could remove myself from the engraved and chiseled memories I knew.
I struggle to adequately describe the bond that Shera and I share – not because I am afraid or because I doubt that you will care. I struggle two-fold, maybe three. Let me do my best to explain though challenging for me. One, when one spends years “just” living with night terrors, hypervigilance, and public anxiety, one starts to accept it is part of daily living. One also learns that the public is uncomfortable hearing military stories that aren’t filled with highlights of our victories and our bravery. If I share that I get afraid, I may not meet your images you desire to have and hold on to of the military. And third, have you ever had something that your heart struggled to find the words for because it was a feeling in which no words could adequately convey? Perhaps like hearing your unborn child’s heartbeat for the first time in which your breath was absolutely taken away.
I am blessed to be married to my best friend, and I love my step children as if they were of my blood since they were conceived. Yes, now that but of what Shera has that my dear family is missing. Though I know my family accepts me as I am, in all my anxious sensitivity, a part of me worries about what they think. Through my ears I hear their judgments and through my eyes, I see their concern at what feelings are rising in me. They might not be thinking anything negative at all, but in my mind that is what I perceive. Shera’s unconditional love and her ears – and heart – hear my voice when I can’t find my own words to speak. Shera is the safety net that helps me feel completely free to be…me.
I mentioned earlier that I “lived with” PTSD in that “it just is what it is” mode. Prescription medications to sleep and to briefly enter crowded areas part of what would help me cope. In 2015, a psychiatrist with the Veterans Administration gave me a prescription of a different kind. Have you considered a service dog to accompany you by your side? Shera was already filling that role – unofficially – at this time. I didn’t need another service dog; I needed Shera to now earn her service stripes. Shera and I filled that script through AKC Canine Good Citizen training. With the passing of her Public Access Test, now Shera goes everywhere with me. And, very infrequently now is prescription medication a necessity.
I should qualify “everywhere”, for there are certain situations in which Shera does not go. It is a choice I make that she should stay home. Just as Shera has my back and is ever vigilant at what is best for me, I, too, watch out to make Shera is not put into situations that aren’t for her well-being. If a hike is the day’s plan, but the outside temperature is nearing triple digit degrees, Shera stays home so as not to be submerged in grueling heat. Shera may monetarily begrudge not going, for she wants to make sure she is there if I become in need. Yet, just as I know she is always keeping watch over me, Shera knows I have her back equally.
I know that Shera cannot fill the shoes of my comrades I had the honor of serving with for our country. Those shoes can only be filled by the finest of men and women I have had the privilege of knowing. Yet, when Shera lays down behind my back when I am in a grocery story line, I can feel myself protected by my battalion, all of them protecting me from all sides. I like to think that Shera can hear their heartbeats from distant spaces, wherever those spaces may be. Shera has a wisdom like that, a keen “knowing”.
It isn’t easy to be in silence without all the noises of a war zone ringing louder than one’s ears can absorb adequately. And it isn’t easy to be in a crowd so very loud, wishing that silence would come quickly. It is easy to be home because public places feel unsafe. And it isn’t easy to be home because there is fear threat can’t be kept at bay. It is easy to feel better staying up for two or three days straight so that there can be one solid night of sleep. And it can be easy to long for staying asleep to avoid anxiety’s reality. One can be on the front lines praying for the war to end so that you return safely home to family. And once on this side of the front lines, no longer deployed, one prays for finding peace. In this tug and pull, this stretch, this war that rages within that I don’t always have the training to know how to fight, Shera is the one who keeps me centered, moving forward, and upright.
Shera was our flower girl, best man, maid of honor, and I would argue the one to also give us away. Walking down the aisle and then next to my wife and I Shera sat as we said I do on our wedding day. Once again, as Shera stood beside me, I could feel myself surrounded by so many more I couldn’t see. My battalion there in the shadows with raised hands in salute. Kris, way to go man, this girl is most definitely the right one for you!
Shera is an extension of my right arm, her mission to serve my needs. Her purpose is to support me as I journey with PTSD. Yet, when Shera heard me vow to have and to hold, Shera made this vow her own. If my wife is not feeling well, Shera is watchful of her as well as me. Guardian of my wife, too, while keeping me her top priority.
Shera has a second purpose – actually, we both do as a team. Our story is not just about hope, nor dignity. We also feel our story matters for the education we can provide. Dear public, please know, some wounds are invisible to the naked eye. I may not be blind, nor deaf, nor missing of limb, but that does not mean I am not in need. I will never wish the kind of anxiousness and terror I feel near you, yet sometimes I wish you could walk in the footsteps of my feet. And please know, it is not you personally that near paralyzes me and threatens to take me to my knees fighting for breath or not to feel like I might explode. I won’t have words that will make sense to you, but please know. I don’t want to scare you when the walls feel like they are closing in around me. I also recognize that perhaps for you dogs are scary. Because I believe you know that the military place the highest value on one word – our honor- which means everything. I promise you, I will never put you in harm’s way with Shera next to me. Please give her a chance, please withhold your judging, feel free to ask questions for better understanding. Just please don’t pet her without first talking with me. I know there are some who abuse the service dog system, which is unfortunate, but I also kindly ask you not generalize. For the sake of twenty-two brave and honorable veterans who are daily fighting for their lives. A service dog could help a veteran live independently – and that is the key – living.
I have mentioned Shera’s wisdom, her keen intuitiveness that isn’t just to get my attention when she senses I need to remove myself from a large crowd before anxiety takes the lead. There are moments like when we visited a Starbuck’s in New York City. Dear Shera loves all ethnic backgrounds, not a discriminatory bone does she have. That I can walk with her in my home city full of diversification I am glad. Anyway, into a Starbucks we walk passing a gentleman who appeared down on his luck, and who Shera immediately did not like. That Shera started to communicate in a low growl took me by surprise. A few minutes later police arrived due to an incident that took place prior to us entering the door as customers that day. Shera had known something wasn’t right immediately upon us entering that place.
If you see Shera jump up and put her paws on my chest, you might think she is not being a “good” dog because she is not staying down. This is how Shera communicates that she can hear how my heart is starting to rapidly pound. When anxiousness is starting to grip me, Shera lets me know it is time for us to find a quieter place, like going for a walk outside. Her other tactic if we are sitting is to put her paw on my leg, look for her leash, and will me to look into her eyes. Shera has a stubborn streak, too, if I am not paying attention as she speaks. For fifty-pounds give or take, she is very strong when she sits refusing to move her feet. I must say, I didn’t know it possible to find anyone outside my battalion who knew the shape of my back as if it were their own, ever vigilant in their watch of me I feel blessed that I have found another soul who is as diligent in guarding for what I may not immediately see.
These moments of anxiety in which Shera wills me outside are not life and death emergencies. Yet, in the depths of anxiety’s grip, these times can feel like I am being pulled from life towards an ending in which I may no longer be able to breathe. I know sometimes Shera grows in her own anxiousness if she can’t be by my side, yet she bravely hides it ever my calmer dad, it’s all right. A line had to be drawn in which she couldn’t be in pre-op as I prepared for minor surgery. I can still see her excited greeting when I awoke in recovery. I confess, I’m not sure who is happier when our eyes meet. Shera might be more expressive outwardly of what my heart is inwardly communicating. I have missed you girl, oh have I missed you so. You are the biggest part of my heart, as I know you already know.
Dad, I have missed you too, though I knew you were in safe keep. Through rooms and through space, I listen for your heartbeat. I would lay down my life for you, as I know you would lay down yours for me. Did I ever tell you dad, that I could hear you from all the way in Tennessee? Your voice was faint, but I could hear what your heart was trying to speak. Humility and pride, not wanting to burden people with your pain. Oh, how you were striving to be so brave. I was too dad, trying to be courageous and have faith. I knew I needed to get to you and that there would be a way. Even when I felt I wasn’t wanted, I would be quiet and listen to what my own heart was beating in rhythm to. It kept repeating: your souls will reunite soon; he is looking for you. Dad, thank you for calling out to me loud enough for me to hear so that I would know North and East was the direction I needed to go. When my eyes looked into yours, my heart beat excitedly…home.