When asked to share in a class who I most admired and why, I sat thankfully and fretfully in the back row of the classroom pondering my answer. I was thankful I was sitting in the back row and would not have to answer first so that I had the additional time to reflect. I was fretful trying to narrow my list down to one person.
When it became my turn to answer, my reply was something like this: I stopped telling people to watch the movie Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close when the overwhelming response I would receive was that the movie was so sad. I didn’t see the sadness when I had watched the movie. Instead I saw the purpose of each encounter between the little boy and the individuals he met. I watched the gifts that came from tragedy. I found that I, too, desired to find and build 427 people into my scrapbook, twenty-fold. Throughout the entire movie I saw hope. What do I most admire? The strength and beauty of the human spirit.
I communicated that in class sitting next to a student who exemplified these two traits of those whom I most admire. Both of us were in an organizational leadership program and learning about servant-leadership. Both of us were now learning how we could take our leadership to next levels and he had far surpassed me in his experiences and capabilities to serve and lead in his career up to this point. His career involved the willingness and the vow to lay down his life for others in service to our country. And he was in class with his service dog who was supporting this veteran’s journey with PTSD.
As our journey with this class progressed, this student gave me one of his most valuable assets for a final class project. He gave me his trust to write his life story. He dug deep within to find his courage to share this story with someone who had zero experience in or with the military. Because he was being asked to bravely share his story with a stranger rather than close friend, he needed to decide to put aside fears that his story would be judged. He had to assess his willingness to verbally share a story that is very hard to give voice to. He was facing a requirement to take a significant risk that he would be stronger than the painful memories that might resurface by sharing his story.
Yet, stronger than these fears in my classmate was his inherent desire to continue to serve. His vow to lay down his life for others is a lifetime oath. He is no longer living out this vow deployed in a war zone; now he is living this vow as a civilian, a veteran, and a lifetime brother who does not want to see his armed forces brothers and sisters lose their lives now that they, too, are civilians.
We don’t always know in the moment we take a step that we are entering a path we are being called to travel. Writing this veteran’s life story was the first step to this book you now hold.
Emily Dickenson wrote: Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul, and sings the tune without the words, and never stops—at all. From an unknown author, a quote reads: In my darkest hour, I reached for a hand and found a paw.
Hope Has a Cold Nose, is a compilation of veteran life stories written to increase awareness and understanding about the positive impact service dogs make in the support and recovery of those who journey with pain, trauma, sorrow, and despair (PTSD). It is a book unlike any of its kind, for it is authored by not just one individual. It is written by twenty-three additional coauthors who hope and pray that by bravely sharing their stories they will inspire their brothers and sisters in arms not to give up. It is a book of extraordinary stories of resilience, despair, survival, dignity, hope, and the power of fur and cold noses to aid healing in place of traditional treatments such as prescription medicines.
Much of the information communicated indicates that twenty-two United State veterans die by suicide daily. At certain points in time, the number was as low as twenty. As Shannon Walker, CEO of Northwest Battle Buddies, shares in her Mount Hood TEDx talk from November 2019, that is 7,300 lives per year. This is in comparison to 548 US military combat deaths per year. The current statistic is not as critical as the absolute reality; if even one life ends in suicide, the number is too high.
I am someone who believes so deeply that there is purpose in the emotional and mental anguish and grief that comes with life, and that we are called to make tragedy matter through the choices we make in how we respond. Because I believe that amid life’s darkest pains are beautiful gifts, my heart aches to think one person reaches a point in which living becomes too unbearable. Let alone twenty or twenty-two per day!
The number of suicides rise when we factor in first responders and others who serve humanity who reach a point where the weight of the pain, trauma, and grief becomes too great for them to bear.
The veteran stories you will read are from several branches of the military and from varying experiences—Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Kuwait, Vietnam, Israel. Yes, Israel too. For on this journey of seeking stories of the positive impact of service animals in the lives of veterans journeying with PTSD, my path was led to two individuals who served in the Army in Israel. Their stories are affirmation that pain, trauma, sorrow, despair, and grief are not unique. At least one of these components of suffering we have all experienced and survived.
These two Israeli stories are also representative of something else to ponder, and perhaps ultimately learn from—that we in the United States may adopt and apply to our own healing journeys. According to an article from 2014 written by Marissa Newman in the Times of Israel: “7 [suicide] cases reported in 2013, down 50% from last year and 75% from 2010.” Friends residing in Israel affirm the suicide rate is still this considerably low. In the words of a dear friend, We are an entire country that has PTSD, for Israel has been a country of war for many generations. And yet, it is a country in which few are reaching a self-chosen decision that life should end. Unstoppable resilience? It would seem so. Unwavering hope? Absolutely.
Two of the twenty-three stories you will read are from authors whose dogs are not certified service dogs. Their dogs are what we would consider an emotional support animal. Yet their stories are inspiring and extraordinary. And their stories represent something else that is key. Best-selling author Cheryl Richardson wrote: People start to heal the moment they feel heard. I also have a personal belief that there is a significant positive ripple effect that occurs from any healing moment. Healing breaks painful generational cycles that need not be replicated, helps another who can see in someone’s else’s story a piece of themselves, and heals history in which there may not have been community support for those returning from service, such as during the Vietnam War era.
There is also a story shared by an individual who is a spouse of a military veteran, and the storyteller is also a first responder. Like the two stories mentioned above, this person’s story is equally inspiring and extraordinary. It affirms, as all the stories from this book do, that pain, trauma, sorrow, and despair do not discriminate. It is a story of healing to inspire others who may see into the mirror of their hearts a reflection of themselves. And it is a story to demonstrate that one person’s pain is not for that person only. There is a tie binding to loved ones, to friends, and to the surrounding community who hurt when someone they love is deeply hurting.
It is community that can help individuals on their journeys, a support system that can serve as a complement to those in fur with cold noses. To look someone’s pain or grief in the eye is one of the hardest things to do. We find ourselves uncomfortable listening to the content of the story. We don’t want to hear about death, depression, addiction, or wanting to die. We’d rather avoid having to make a choice that taps into our ethical systems of belief. We are fearful to feel that deep-down feeling—what if that was me? We judge, either out of naivety or because judging is our self-protection against our fears—fears we may not even know. It can feel safer if we critique another’s story so that we can avoid looking into a mirror at our own pain we try to hide. A veteran who enters a public setting with a service dog is exhibiting a courage to communicate they know emotional pain. Often, these veterans face judging public eyes. The stories you will read in Hope Has a Cold Nose are written with a tone of beauty to serve as a bridge to you, the reader. The intent is that the tone will provide you the opportunity to not want to push away, but instead “hear” the stories with compassion and without judgment. People begin to heal the moment they feel heard. And, so does humanity.
Though you will find similarity across all of the stories, you will also find that each story differs. Sure, there is the obvious reason in that no two of us experience life exactly the same way. My approach as a life-story writer is not to ask questions. I do not have a script or template that guides what to ask. As I tell storytellers, my approach is to listen for the story you wish to share with me as it is the story that is meant to be shared. When we can listen not from a place of what we want to know but from a place of what others wish to share, we are providing that nonjudgmental, compassionate space for healing. We are allowing others in pain the freedom to be. It is through this approach that you will find the stories vary in length, in which ones share about deployment, and in which ones focus only on their time postwar. People begin to heal the moment they feel safe to share their stories.
On this journey to develop Hope Has a Cold Nose, I have been blessed to learn about many organizations that embody giving purpose to life’s tragedies, fostering dignity, and enabling healing for those whose voices are quiet or hard to hear. These organizations are courageously looking into eyes of pain, trauma, sorrow, despair, or grief to offer a supporting hand. You can read about these organizations at the end. May these “communities” of support inspire you, just as they find inspiration to keep living their missions and purpose through each individual—human and fur—they serve.
2020 has proven to be a year in which the entire world found itself seeking hope and faith in, or perhaps despite, the vulnerabilities and traumas that are an essence of life’s flow. As more uncertainty became an hour-by-hour norm, each person was being asked to choose their reactions and their actions. The more that was perceived as slipping away, the greater the gifts of connecting and reconnecting were found. It’s that fundamental truth of life that we learn through opposites and it is how well we dance in the middle—and in the choices we make—that give us grace.
As you read the stories on the next pages, may you find the grace and heart to listen with the same kind of unconditional acceptance as those with fur do. And if you are one journeying with significant pain, trauma, sorrow, or despair, may you find a community of grace holding out their helping hands.
Indeed, I can think of no greater admiration than the strength and beauty of the human spirit, and the spirits that come in fur coats.
Ad astra per aspera: through difficulty to the stars —Latin Phrase
When you fall, but fall forward. When you stop, to only catch your breath. And when you face the unknown.
March 24, 2016
I had let the demons of war and the struggles of life allow me to forget I was a husband and a father. A son and a brother. A veteran and a friend.
Within minutes of no longer being here, through a series of miracles and a small army of friends, and a medical staff that was not ready to give up on me…
I AM still here.
And proudly I stand —-M. Ortiz, US Army, Airborne, 2019 Commencement Speech
Dear me, four years ago,
Today is March 24, 2020 and it has been four years since you attempted to take your life.
Within minutes of no longer being here I look back onto that day and want to tell you, you got through it.
As I sit here and rub the scars you left me, scars I will forever have, I will forever struggle to take any kind of medication in remembrance of the pills that day.
I am still here.
JACOB and TRACER
In racing, they say that your car goes where your eyes go. The driver who cannot tear his eyes away from the wall as he spins out of control will meet that wall; the driver who looks down the track as he feels his tires break free will regain control of his vehicle.
―Garth Stein, The Art of Racing in the Rain
His war and my war different, yet both of us experienced the same. Both of us have known loss and inescapable pain. He may not have held the hand of a comrade taking his last breath. Yet he knew the feeling of a shield starting to cover his heart when a cage was his bed. He may not have longed for silence when the spray of ammo was deafening. But he knew the pain of silence when his neighbors stopped their lonely howls for sleep. We both knew the struggle to close our eyes for fear of memories; both of us with images that reinforced we weren’t “good for anything.” On one level, I knew I was fulfilling my sacred oath to serve and protect. Yet on another, I felt I was failing for each heartbeat that would not know what it was to resurrect. On one level, his purpose to love unconditionally would not let him lose the faith; but not being wanted was eroding his spirit away.
Voices he couldn’t shake screamed “NO!”, “Bad!”, and ultimately “We surrender him to you. Good riddance; he is yours!” Voices I couldn’t shake yelled, “Help me, please,” “Don’t let me die,” “Tell my family I bravely fought the war.” His way of speaking is through his body in its wiggles and shakes; the more to be happy about, the more movement he makes. As words sharper than a knife snapped his heart in two, his eyes grew dim and his body subdued. I had once spoke in a voice so charismatically, surrounded by family and friends once my top joy and
priority. As one life, then two, then…turn off, oh God, please, let me find that off button immediately. I, too, grew dim, so very dim inside. Both of us encountering nothing but darkness as we reached for life.
Before our souls would find each other, before hope would nudge us both, I needed to partner with despair upon returning home. What right do I have to be alive? or In this chair, in this room, is the only safe place for me. These were the types of messages in my mind’s relentless repeat. The power of three G’s, my armor laying across my chest—grief, guilt, and gutless trying to steal my breath. Death had rubbed against me over and over—during deployment it just wouldn’t leave. It had shown me it placed no value on good people—a dirty rotten thief! I was no longer at war, but I was at war every day. Emotions once buried threatening to no longer stay at bay. Those hands I held or wished I could have had they still been attached now keep reaching out when I try to sleep. Okay, buddies, cheers to you. This fifth of Absolut is on the house, courtesy of me. Down the hatch, one, two, three. Another bottle, another day, oh, sweet oblivion thanks you for your mercy. And yes, Doc, I don’t mind if I do. Pile on the prescriptions—twenty-five feels too few.
Before we were meant to join as one, guardian angels were sent our way. They were the orchestrators as our beacons of faith. My guardian angel was named Teresa and his was a right-arm extension of an angel called Shari. Both were determined they would not give up on him nor me. One step at a time, but steps forward nonetheless we were both taking. Step one for me, no more drink. Step one for him, another veteran and a planned meet and greet. Step two for me, an application acceptance to be partnered with a service dog. Step two for him, a veteran cancellation with one phone call. Step three for me, a six-month waiting period shortened to eight weeks. Step three for him, a veteran named Jacob he was about to meet.
Hello Tracer, I am Jacob. What do you say—shall we give this a try?
Hello Jacob, I am Tracer. And just so you know—I will never leave your side.