Paying it Forward: The Story of Steve & Service Dog Charlie
As told by Steve
It’s hard to put into words how meaningful and strong your connection to a service dog is when you rely on him to have your back all day, every day. When a dog is the one who picks you up when you fall, or licks your face to wake you up from yet another terrifying nightmare, or is the only reason you can drive without another human being in the car, you develop a bond that most people will never understand.
I sustained a Traumatic Brain Injury during my twenty years of service in the Army. When I was released in 2000, I could not see the light at the end of the tunnel. I suffered from severe PTSD, which caused terrifying nightmares every time I went to sleep (it still does). I had severe balance problems and was collapsing regularly, and I sustained multiple concussions that compounded my head trauma. My life was in shambles, and I tried to hide it from my family and friends—and even from myself—for ten long years.
When I finally decided to get help, I was matched up with Charlie by Service Dog Project in Ipswich, Massachusetts, a facility that trains Great Danes to assist humans with balance issues. I remember during the bonding phase with Charlie, I looked in his eyes and said, “Well, do you think we can make this work?” Charlie looked up at me, took a step forward, and rested his head on my knee. We became a team at that moment and have been together ever since.
Once I got Charlie home, it’s not an exaggeration to say that he singlehandedly got me out of my wheelchair and back into the world. Because Charlie is trained to balance out my gait when I become unsteady and even to pick me up if I fall, I slowly regained the confidence to get back on my feet.
When I realized that Charlie had essentially allowed me to reclaim my life, I knew I had to give back. Working with fellow veterans and training dogs at SDP is now my mission in life, and I volunteer here full time as the veterans’ liaison.
We’ve got twenty-two veterans a day killing themselves in the United States because they’re getting out of the military and they don’t know how to deal with civilian society. What encourages me to keep doing what I’m doing is the relief and gratitude that vets feel every day when they realize that someone understands what they’re going through.
I’m not the only one who owes my recovery to Charlie. Every vet that I’m able to help ultimately has Charlie to thank, because I wouldn’t be here without him. That’s the ripple effect that one dog can have.