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“…what most separates dogs from humankind isn’t mental capacity, however, but innocence. This innocence carries with it a clarity of perception that allows dogs to glory in the wonder of creation in even the most humble scene and quiet moment…the combination of their innocence and their intelligence allows them to serve as a bridge between what is transient and what is eternal, between the finite and the infinite.” –Dean Koontz
Gander, my service dog, and I frequent veteran cemeteries and memorials when we travel. We accept requests in advance from friends and social media; contacts will ask us to visit a relative’s gravesite, take a picture of a name on a memorial or leave something in memoriam. Gander quietly sits vigil as I prepare for the rites I have promised to perform. I take this ritual seriously and Gander honors the gravity of our acts of fulfillment with exceptional calm and professionalism.
Because of the solemnity of our intentions we go when few people are likely to be there at the same time. But, more than once we have exchanged whispered greetings along the way and have occasionally been invited into emotional drawing rooms between the living and the dead where military families still mourn. Twice, while at Arlington National Cemetery, Gander has called people deep in grief back to this world where they spoke to us about love and loss.
I think we often see and hear what we want to see and hear; we interpret simple events as important lessons. At other times life rally does conjures up for us exactly what we need, at that moment in time, to navigate toward safety and comfort; usually at times when we have almost resigned ourselves to being adrift forever.
Gander had stopped unexpectedly several times. He would look out toward the long rows of white markers and then cock his head the way he does when someone is talking to him. A women and her daughter who had been ahead of us for most of our journey toward the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier stopped just a few yards short of our destination.
“Do you suppose he can hear them? The soldiers?” I was relieved. It wasn’t just me who thought he was in touch with something invisible and inaudible to we humans. It was a beautiful sunny day. There was a slight breeze, but it was barely strong enough to rustle leaves. He looked engaged, not perplexed or curious. It was the same caring way he would look at me when I needed a dispassionate listener in times of inner turmoil.
She told me that she comes to Arlington once a week. Her brother was interred not far away. He’d served in Vietnam as a hospital corpsman. His Purple Heart was earned with a minor injury when their mobile surgery facility was mortared one dark midnight in 1969. He’d been given the Silver Star for his selfless actions attending to patients that night without regard for his own welfare. He’d left both at the base of Vietnam Memorial years ago as a tribute to the dozens of men he had watched succumb to injuries beyond medicine’s ability to repair.
He was taken by helicopter from doing triage on a platoon that experienced heavy casualties when ambushed by the Viet Cong, to a waiting 727 that flew him to San Francisco where, still in jungle fatigues, he disembarked through a gauntlet of angry protesters. At twenty years old he was a stranger in his own country after only nine months away.
He’d been afraid when he went, she said. The fear was replaced by the grief and guilt he felt on his return. He remembered every name, held a picture in his mind of every wound he dressed. With old friends in college his world was television, books, ways to pass sleepless hours.
A job in the post office on the graveyard shift kept him solvent and there were few people who demanded his attention. But, the anxiety and depression worsened. And, when we isolate we don’t make enough new memories to replace the old ones.
The VA, with the casualties of two new wars to attend to had few programs and little regard for an aging Viet Vet. The new counselor hires were kind enough, but they couldn’t empathize with a man who decades their senior who could barely give voice to the increasing sadness and despair inside of him.
He left a note the day he hung himself. He said the only reliable friend left in his life was suicide. He asked not to be buried in a military cemetery because that was reserved for soldiers who fought and for those he’d watched over as they died. But, because money was tight she had arranged for him to be interred at Arlington.
“I feel ashamed. I want him to be at peace,” she said quietly. “Do you think he can ever forgive me?”
You want to say “yes” at moments like that. You want to have a spiritual connection; you want to believe that this kind of deadly regret can be vanquished. That another good person should die physically, emotionally or spiritually because they had done the best they could, should never happen.
I want to lie just to give her some peace. But, remorse and grief are clever, intuitive adversaries: They know when you have nothing more to offer than a “sorry” in the way of a anecdote, aphorism or falsehood meant to send them on their way. I couldn’t do it.
Just then, Gander rose, turned again toward the graves, before slowly moving toward me with his head bowed. He reared back on his hind legs and placed his front paws squarely in the center of my chest and looked me straight in the eyes the way he does when I am overwhelmed and at a loss for words or actions. A long kiss on the cheek later and he pushed himself off, wheeling to turn toward the woman, who by now was in tears. He turned his body sideways and leaned his weight against her.
It hardly matters whether or not it was coincidence that Gander chose that moment to be affectionate. It has happened so many times now I am no longer surprised when it happens. There was no explanation needed, no words left to be exchanged between us. She did lean down to look into Gander’s endlessly soulful eyes to say “thank you”. We both received an answer we could believe in.
“That’s what heaven is. You get to make sense of your yesterdays” –Mitch Albom
Veteran Traveler blogger Lon Hodge is an award winning poet, writer and activist for suicide prevention among Veterans and victims of trauma. He travels with his service dog Gander in support of awareness of the healing power of dogs.
The story above is part of a collection of dog stories entitled In Dogs We Trust: Tales of unconditional love, inspiration and service. It features work by dozens of well known writers and dog lovers. Sales of the book support rescue efforts, service dogs, war dogs and PTSD/trauma survivor dog charities. It is available here.
Follow Gander on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog.
As a volunteer with Freedom Service Dogs in Englewood,Colorado, I am so proud of Gander, and Lon. Someone made a big mistake by abandoning Gander to a Shelter but FSD somehow saw the size of his heart and soul, and put him together with a man who also has a big heart and a beautiful soul. It’s a privilege to give my time and money to this wonderful organization.
Can’t wait until the book comes out! Long live Lon and Gander, you make our world a better place.
Love and hugs, Gilda
What a lovely article!! I just love dogs and take deep interest to read more about them. I recommend Gander and Lon names to my friend also,he recently buy a Saint Bernard puppy…. hope he like it.Thanks to you!!
I love to read about Gander and Lon and damn sure this article also like by all pet lovers. I just want to share it with my friends and convince them to join at Facebook page.
Beautiful article!!! I keep up with Gander and Lonnie’s activities daily on their site…so proud of both of them…God bless you both!!
As a military wife and massive dog lover this touched my heart and life in so many ways. You brought beauty and understanding to so many things. Gander is indeed a very special dog in as much as you are a very special man. Thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Beautiful and beautifully written story, Lon. May God richly bless you and Gander for the service you do the people who perhaps cannot be reached any other way, for their families, and for us all, to be allowed to witness the power of the sincerity of dogs.
I follow Gander and Lon on Facebook. Gander, you never cease to amaze me.
The stillness and wonder of Arlington is sensed in this loving essay. I, too, believe Dogs have a gift, Providentially granted, to perceive beyond mere human concepts – and through this they help us understand in some small way the nature of our journey.
I hope Gander’s actions helped ease the woman’s concerns; he certainly encourages me.
Gander could surely feel your loss for an answer Lonnie and probably also that woman’s pain. Wonderful story, beautifully written!
What a beautiful and heartfelt story. Death is never an easy thing but when you equate suicide into it, it only makes things all the harder. I have always felt that animals have a kinship with those that have departed from us. They seem to have that sixth sense that those individuals are still with us somehow. I find it comforting and reassuring that even though I may not be able to see them, that they are trying to reassure me through my animals that they are still there with me. I think that what you are doing is precious and valiant. I am so glad that those soldiers have Gander to talk to. Thank you for all that you and Gander do.
Gander looks exactly like my dog Levi, whom I just lost to Cancer a month ago. I felt like I was looking at my dog and wonder if they were brothers……Labradoodle. I sure miss him, and thanks for the wonderful story 🙂