THIS STORY I WROTE SOMEHOW SEEMS APPROPRIATE AS MASSES OF PEOPLE ARE OUT SHOPPING ON THIS DAY AFTER THANKSGIVING. I HOPE IT REMINDS YOU OF WHAT IS, OR SHOULD BE, MOST IMPORTANT.
I tell this story to let our soldiers with the invisible wounds know they are not alone and their service and sacrifices do not go unnoticed. And I tell it for you. So that when you go to sleep at night, you will remember Allen Hill and the price of freedom.
Sometimes things happen in our lives that cause us to stumble and temporarily be thrown off balance. We grumble about the heat and the inconveniences of a freeway traffic jam, and we worry about the unimportant and mundane occurrences in our everyday lives that appear to us to be so earthshaking and insurmountable.
And then sometimes things happen that allow us to reach the center of what is most important. We suddenly awaken to what people we have never met, in a place we have never heard of, endured and will endure for the remainder of their lives to keep us free. Everyday, in every way, these American heroes lay their lives on the line to protect us. I find that extraordinarily humbling. And I find it remorseful that they aren’t appreciated more for their service and sacrifices.
It was a late 107 degree July Monday afternoon in San Antonio. I drove to a psych hospital where twenty soldiers are undergoing treatment for the invisible wound called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD.) I had met many, many soldiers at Walter Reed and Brooke Army Medical Center with this injury, but none had effected me quite like Allen. Allen’s story first captured the heart of America when he and his wife were on a national television program focusing on the devastating effects of PTSD and how his service dog, Frankie, from Puppies Behind Bars in New York alerts him to his debilitating and reoccurring flashbacks by jumping on his lap and licking his face until he focuses on the present once again and the unspeakable horrors of war are temporarily released, at least for a few minutes before striking again.
I had had the opportunity of spending some time with Allen’s wife Gina and their two kids the day before. She kindly invited me to visit her husband the next day. Little did I know the impact simply meeting him would have on my life.
As Allen approached the large round dining table in the cafeteria at the hospital, I noticed we were surrounded by families visiting loved ones, small children who had been horrifically sexually abused, and gang members looking somewhat lost. As soon as Allen entered the room, Frankie became alert, tail wagging. You could almost hear her saying, “Finally, there you are.”
Allen sat down with his dinner tray of chopped beef and rice and mixed vegetables. Frankie was in position, under the dining room table with both paws and head resting on Allen’s big red shoes. She waited! She waited for the man she listened to. Listening for that moment when she needed to alert him back to the real world once again.
I introduced myself and spoke with this soldier who had sacrificed his future for me and others like me. With a lump in my throat, I extended my hand which he shook with a handshake that told me a lot about this man. I told him what wonderful sons he had and that he should be very proud. This seemed to please him. I mentioned I hoped he was a little better every day and that therapy was helping. We talked about ‘baby steps’ and how talking to a counselor would help him release the horrors of war and that while they would never go away they would lessen to a degree and he would grow to recognize the triggers to these flashbacks easing their intensity somewhat. He told me that he had not shared everything with his therapist. I asked why and he simply said, “It is more than she could take. There were days I didn’t think I would live.” I told him, “She can take it, she can take it. She is trained to.” His eyes told me that those words feel on deaf ears. He wanted to spare her the pain of what he endured. This is the kind of man Allen is or maybe he couldn’t relive it one more time.
Gina and I talked for a while as Allen silently ate his dinner. But her eyes kept moving from my face to his. Ever vigilant, Gina quietly said, “He is beginning to have a flashback.” I turned and looked at an American hero who was staring blankly into space. A space filled with unspeakable horrors that come back to him without warning, blacking out all reality of the present. Gina stood and went to stand beside him. Allen is never combative in these flashbacks but his eyes and face tell the story. First his eye lids started to quiver and then twitch. His eyes never off of the horizon of a place and time we will never know. Then his face contorted somewhat. Gina, patting his cheeks and calling his name realized she needed help from a dog that knew exactly what to do.
Frankie was given one of eighty commands she learned at Puppies Behind Bars and placed both front paws on Allen’s chest and began licking and nudging his face. Literally in two to three seconds, Allen blinked and returned to us for a brief time, until it happened about ten minutes later.
This is his life. This is Gina’s life. This is the price of freedom, the freedom that allowed Allen to get up and bring back three pieces of strawberry cheesecake, one for each son and one for himself.
Allen may not be perfect, but in his imperfections, he taught me that the bottom line is how we deal with the tough stuff, what and who we passionately and truly love, and that people are not defined by their limitations. In Allen’s beautiful black eyes, I saw my own life reflected and wondered on the way home how I would cope in similar circumstances. I was keenly aware of those times in my life when I have needed to be carried – when I just couldn’t do it anymore – and who was there for me.
Allen’s story is not so unique. Thousands of our wounded heroes are returning from combat with the same injury. Glimpses into their lives are full of struggles and coping and agony and despair. They feel excluded, isolated, and face unspeakable terrors at every corner at every moment of the day.
We all need someone willing to go looking for us when we’re lost. We all want to find our way home again and sometimes it just isn’t that easy. “When I came home, I had to learn to be an American again.” Occasionally the flashbacks cause him to search his house for insurgents. It is then that Frankie takes Allen outside of his flashbacks and panic attacks into the here and now in a matter of seconds. Without Frankie the flashbacks could last hours.
At the end of the day what I write about turns out to deal with my deepest concerns and values. The important part is making the story powerful by expressing my authentic emotions. I write from my heart. Tonight I write about Allen.
Charles M. Schultz said, “A whole stack of memories never equal one little hope.” For Allen and Gina and the kids, I have hope. And Frankie - well Frankie gives me goosebumps! Observant and ever vigilant Frankie teaches us that nuzzling can make a huge difference. So with Frankie the story is just beginning. This dog provides a new meaning to ‘rest in peace.’ With this dog under his arm Allen can find rest, and peace and sleep and perhaps life again. Not the same life, but life.
Frankie can convey encouragement, support, empathy, affection, humor and can elicit it in Allen. The abilities of both are enhanced by the presence of the other. Frankie is not there to talk about how Allen got in this predicament, but to focus on hope and the future.
So I ask you to remember Allen and Frankie. Hear what life is telling you. Let your heart guide you. It whispers - so listen closely. By risk there is more to be gained than lost. Allen risks life minute by minute every day. With Frankie and Allen’s courageous companionship and allegiance to each other they just might be kindred spirits. Observing, I have learned to acknowledge that your soul mate helps you be your best self…so that your soul can do the most for the world. And sometimes your soul mate just might be a yellow lab named Frankie.
Allen has already done his best for the world. I like to think that what happened to Allen happened for us. For us to learn to appreciate our freedom and all the young men and women like him who sacrifice for us as we go about our daily duties completely unaware of their existence.
Allen and Frankie showed me that waiting for the ‘right time’ we spend much of our lives waiting. Allen fought so that we have this freedom to make a choice, to make a stand, to make our lives brilliant with joy and happiness, to make our lives count. For this I will be eternally grateful to this man I met today. I would miss him had we never met.
On the way home I realized that whatever comes from my heart has been given to me as a gift. I must give it honor. Allen will eventually heal to some degree from the past and I believe people who are fortunate enough to meet him will accept the gifts he has to offer their futures. Allen may not know it but our lives are now woven together, for on this hot Texas afternoon our dreams collided. For him the battle will never end. War ends but the battles don’t. For Gina and Allen love doesn’t fit into a nice shiny mold. But it fits.