Written Stacy Pearsall
In August 2016, with oversized paws and floppy ears flying, Charlie galloped down the red carpet on Rockefeller Plaza to make his debut as the TODAY Show’s “Puppy with a Purpose.” For over a year, Charlie traveled from the America’s VetDogs training facility on Long Island to Manhattan where he’d spend his mornings on set with the anchors and various TODAY Show guests. While he relished belly rubs from celebrities like Dolly Parton and Michael Phelps, Charlie most enjoyed showing off his newly learnt abilities to anyone who’d watch. After all, Charlie wasn’t just a cute and cuddly puppy, he was a service dog in training.
Over the following year Charlie was on the show, his puppy raiser and trainer, Olivia Poff, developed his obedience skills such as heel, sit, down, stay and come. Then she and Charlie’s service dog trainer, Katie Ruiz, diligently cultivated more complex behaviors such as push, rest, brace, alert and bring – mainstays of all proficient America’s VetDogs.
As Charlie neared his 18-month birthday, it was decided he was ready to embark on his journey. That’s about the time I received a call from America’s VetDogs that I finally had a training date and would be paired with my own service dog. After two years of waiting, I was elated. As I prepared for the momentous change that was coming, Charlie continued his daily training routine both on and off set. Meanwhile, the staff at America’s VetDogs had the difficult task of identifying just the right veteran-partner for this extraordinary animal. As luck would have it, that was me.
Most veterans in the program don’t get to meet their dogs before training begins. Though I’d not met Charlie in person, I had the luxury of watching him grow on the TODAY Show. Like everyone else, he was already a part of my life and I loved him. However, nothing could’ve prepared me for how transformative that moment was.
Deciding to apply for a service wasn’t an easy decision, especially for someone like me. I spent several years serving as an Air Force combat photographer only to have my aspirations of being a “lifer” cut short due to injuries from a road side bomb sustained in Iraq. In the years that followed my subsequent medical retirement, I did my level best to hide my physical and emotional pain from everyone. I acted as though nothing was wrong. All the while, suffering silently. Between the chronic pain, imbalance and migraines that plagued my days and the disturbing dreams that terrorized my nights, I was a mess. I’d been through rigorous physical and mental health therapies, but they only helped so much. The rest was up to me, and I wasn’t doing myself any favors.
I could no longer deny my issues after I had my first seizure. The neurologist attributed it to my traumatic brain injury (TBI) and excessive emotional stress. This was the moment in my life when I admitted I needed help. That’s when I applied for a service dog. In doing so, I knew I’d have to own my disabilities and be open about them with others and, more importantly, myself.
As I stood on the Plaza waiting for Charlie to appear from behind the curtain, I struggled with emotions I’d not felt in a long time – mainly relief. Unafraid, I was prepared to dismantle the façade I’d strategically built to hide my truth; I’d now have Charlie for support. As the curtain drew back and Charlie popped through, tears of joy began to streak my face. Once again, he galloped down the carpet, this time with a new purpose.
Since being paired, Charlie and I’ve travel from coast-to-coast. He’s assisted me on all my Veterans Portrait Project events and even offered comfort and solace to my veteran-subjects. He truly is a gift; not only to me, but everyone he meets. The skills Olivia and Katie taught him have provided me a renewed sense of empowerment and freedom. Where once I’d refrained from noisy, crowded restaurants, I now walk into confidently; where once I’d waver from physical instability, he offers counter balance support; where once I’d relive combat traumas in my sleep, he now wakes me and offers comfort. He’s deeply enriched my life.
What’s more Charlie’s provided consolation to my husband, who no longer has to worry about my wellbeing while away for work. Charlie’s ability to assist on Veterans Portrait Project assignments has also lessened the stress on my colleagues, as I no longer lean so heavily on them for support. He retrieves equipment, offers physical help and, most importantly, emotional consolation. Thus, reducing my overall anxiety and stress, which allows me to better focus my attentions on my photography, to be more present and more productive. As a teammate, he’s second to none.
I genuinely believe in the power of a dog’s ability to touch and transform lives. If you do too, please consider making a contribution the America’s VetDogs today.
Follow Charlie’s adventures:
Personal Website: www.stacypearsall.com
Veterans Portrait Project: www.veteransportraitproject.com
Facebook VPP: @VeteransPortraits
Twitter VPP: @VetPortraits