SFC Zeke

About three years ago, I wrote a story called “My Combat Puppy” here about a dog we rescued in Iraq.  Even seven years later, I still think about Spooky.  So, that was a story about a dog I rescued.  Now, I want to tell you a story about a dog that rescued me. First, a little back story.

After I returned from combat in Iraq in 2003, I had a lot of difficulty managing my experiences.  At the time, the term PTSD wasn’t exactly in our vocabulary.  I still existed in an environment where senior NCOs and Officers didn’t admit to problems sleeping or coping for fear of ruining our careers.  It was considered “weak” to seek help.  Those of us having trouble sleeping, dealing with nightmares, or constantly crying in private at the loss of our friends and co-workers just need to “man up!”

To deal with my issues, I began writing as a form of self-medicine.  To an extent, it greatly helped me cope with my feelings of survivor’s guilt, rage, and depression.  I was able to talk to someone without actually talking to anyone.
Sadly, all that did was slowly cause the latent issues to compound in my mind.  My wife and I started having troubles because I was a wreck and couldn’t open up to her.  Then, I heard the words that scared the life out of me: “I don’t know how much longer I can deal with this.”

Her words cut me to the core and I decided then and there, in 2009, to seek help.  I began to publicly document my struggles on my military blog, A Soldier’s Perspective.  I wrote about programs that were available to me, how they helped, and what I learned from counseling and group therapy.

Because of my injury during an artillery strike outside As Samawah in 2003, I have not been deployed since returning from my initial deployment.  I’ve seen my fellow troops come and go from the combat zone while I’ve had to sit on the sideline and watch because I’m technically “non-deployable.”  It’s been frustrating, to say the least.

Earlier this year, my unit deployed to Afghanistan.  It didn’t feel right that all the Soldiers in my unit were going without me.  So, I worked hard to get myself deployed.  I called in favors from people in high places after my requests for waiver were denied because of a skin cancer condition I came down with.  Because I’m a Master Sergeant now, it’s like I’ll be out in the sun a lot on patrols like I was in Iraq.  I could sit in an office on a Forward Operating Base (FOB) in Afghanistan just as I could in the states.  I also stopped taking my medication because I didn’t want to request a 90-day supply of my prescriptions for fear that taking anti-depressant and anti-anxiety medication would prevent me from deploying (I was wrong by the way).

So, in August of this year, I finally deployed to Kandahar, Afghanistan where I serve as the Brigade Liaison Officer for my unit on the Pakistan border.

Then, in October, a very good friend of mine died – SSG Brian Cowdrey, a combat medic.  I was also dealing with command issues related to my comments towards and embedded, independent journalist that was violating OPSEC and embed rules.  I was suddenly confronted with a bunch of stressors that I wasn’t entirely able to deal with.  Feelings of guilt overcame me again as I tried to cope with the loss of a friend I had spoken to just hours before he was killed.  My right hand wouldn’t stopped twitching after nearly a month and it got beyond irritating. I wasn’t sleeping or eating and became highly irritable.  I was under a lot of stress and felt like many of those above me were just making things worse.

Thankfully, I knew what I needed to do and I took myself to the combat stress clinic and enrolled myself in the counseling effort.  With the advice of my doc, I fired “Dr. Grisham” for deciding that I didn’t need medication to survive.  It was the one remaining stigma I still battle with overcoming.

So, for three hours, I sat and got to revisit many issues related to my PTSD, depression, and anxiety as well as some new ones. While waiting to speak with one of the case workers, I had the opportunity to sit down with “SFC Zeke.”

Zeke looked very busy when I entered the room, but he could tell immediately I was there for business. He set aside his distraction and gave me his complete attention. He didn’t say a word. Just sat there and listened to me. He didn’t judge me; he didn’t interrupt me; and he never blamed me. In 5 minutes, Zeke did what few others could do having just met me – he calmed me down and made me feel like I was worth listening to.

“SFC Zeke” is a Vet Dog. These dogs are raised from puppyhood around the military. They are used to the sounds, the business, and the chaos that accompanies military service. They mostly use Labradors, which are the most laid back and gentle dogs.

When I walked into the room, Zeke was going to town chewing on his bone. He looked up, saw me, and – I kid you not – placed the bone off to the side in an “it’s time to go to work” fashion. He was no longer focused on his chew toy, but on his patient…me. While it sounds hokey, I can now see the value in having these dogs in a combat zone.

Zeke has a busy schedule. He frequently visits other FOBs and checkpoints to visit with other troops. He works out with the service dogs and working dogs. It was refreshing to be human again for awhile and just pet a real dog. We aren’t supposed to mess with the animals around here because of fears about rabies. Dogs have a way of calming your nerves and reminding you what normal is supposed to look like.

Zeke did just that and I’m glad I got to hang out with him today. It was definitely a much better day. And I found a group of troops here to meet with on a regular basis for continued therapy.

I’ve been meeting with Zeke on a regular basis.  I arranged through Facebook to have people send me toys and treats that I took to Zeke and the other military working dogs.  It’s just amazing what a simple animal can do to boost spirits in a combat zone.  I love seeing his excited face as I bring a box of rope, rubber toys, and stuffed animals for him.  He’s like a kid, sniffing around the box even when it’s empty hoping for more toys to magically appear.

Thanks again, Mark, for having this forum to share these stories.  I’m attaching a picture of me and Zeke here at Kandahar.  Thanks also for your voice of reason.  I listen to your podcast every day over here since I can’t catch it live.  Keep up the good work and I’ll talk to you when I get home next summer.

MSG CJ Grisham from Temple, TX