What he says:
By RICK ADAIR
Would you walk up to a person in a wheelchair and say: "Hey, why do you need a wheelchair?"
Probably not, and yet it's not uncommon for someone to see me with my service dog, Raskin, and ask: "Why do you need a service dog?"
It begs the question: How can you look normal, talk normal, act normal and be disabled?
Here's the recipe: Start by serving a year in a combat zone (Vietnam) at 18 - three months as a combat medic with a mechanized infantry unit, the other nine months in the "rear," where rocket attacks and sappers throwing satchel charges into your hootch are daily threats. Then add "only survivor" status to the mix after your two best friends and entire crew are killed by a mine.
These events were so terrifying for this skinny kid, the death of close friends was so unnerving, that he returned home in 1970 with a problem that grew worse when he was labeled as a "disgruntled veteran" and "baby killer." PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, had yet to be invented.
I can't quite put my finger on why, but being called a "baby killer" at 19
after a tour in Vietnam, crawling through rice paddies and caring for
wounded soldiers, felt like my psyche had been put in a blender and set to
To some, this may reinforce their notion that Vietnam vets are whiners or,
as a friend of mine recently admitted thinking, "wimps." (It seems to have
been media policy for decades to only air Vietnam veteran interviews if the vet becomes emotional during the photo-op.)
Some of us may be wimps, but most of us are soldiers, seasoned veterans who did our job well under some of the most hellish conditions that lie well beyond the imagination of the uninitiated.
For this skinny kid, the nightmares after coming home seemed as normal as
the running for cover at a Fourth of July celebration was embarrassing.
Feeling everything from discomfort to anger to rage when someone walked
behind me also felt normal. Not fun certainly, but normal - any idiot knows that if the guy behind you isn't your buddy watching your back, it's most likely someone who will kill you in the blink of an eye.
That was my reality - that was our reality. Sitting with my back to the wall in any public place while taking note of the nearest exit isn't a
disability; it's being a good soldier. Of course I know I'm no longer in a
combat zone, but try telling that to my body, a body that only knows how to survive and isn't convinced the war is over.
Who can blame it, with common city noises replicating the sound of
small-arms fire, people all around in crowds who aren't in uniform
identifying themselves as "friendlies." Come to think of it, if you mention the term "friendlies" to my body, you will likely hear the story of "it" getting into an accidental firefight with fellow GIs. Oops.
Yeah, I look normal, I sound normal, I act normal. I can have a face-to-face conversation with you, and you won't even notice that I'm scanning the room for potential threats. You are probably unaware that the "disabled" vet you're talking to may be the best person to stand next to if a disturbed person walks into the room and starts shooting, or if a hurricane blows the roof off the building. You may just discover the paradox of a "disabled" vet being the most "able" person in the room.
I'm not a hero. As a matter of fact, that word almost turns my stomach for
reasons I can't quite explain or choose not to; I'm just a retired combat
veteran who feels much safer with a dog by my side who always has my back.
If I say "block," she positions herself in front of me; "cover," she goes
behind me; "snuggle," she puts her paws on my shoulders and says "you're
safe." I only use a fraction of the 80 commands she knows because I can take my own laundry out of the dryer, open my own doors and push the elevator button without assistance.
Being blessed with this beautiful dog adds one more "normal" to my list. I
often get to feel normal, even in a crowd and on busy streets. It's a small miracle.
The next time you see a normal-looking person with a service dog and wonder why he or she "gets to bring their dog" into a restaurant, store, plane, etc., whether they're a military veteran, cop, paramedic or firefighter, or they have more obvious mental or physical disabilities, please remember this story and wish them well.
It's 4:30 a.m. and I'm writing this because I can't sleep, so Raskin isn't
by any means a "cure all" for PTSD, but she's my friend and apparently I
earned the Grace in a rice paddy a world away to be her friend.
May Grace also find you and keep you safe.
Rick Adair, of Amherst, is a speaker and advocate for veterans with service dogs.