Steve Edward didn’t always fear public appearances. But the U.S. Army sergeant’s 2004-05 tour of duty in Iraq changed everything.
“Upon my return, I thought the worst was behind me,” he said.
Only it wasn’t.
Hit by an RPG and IED — the second one threw him clear from his Humvee — the 15-year veteran returned stateside with a severe case of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even leaving the house was a challenge.
“I was basically a shut-in,” Edward told the Tracy Kiwanis Club on Monday.
But his closeted life opened when a Veterans Affairs counselor helped Edward sign up for a therapy dog, a Scottish terrier named Amanda.
“I thank God for her,” he said.
A service-certified canine that stands just above ankle high with traditionally cropped, buff-colored hair, Mandy is Edward’s constant companion, helping him cope with crowds that, at least twice, caused the veteran to black out and come to hiding in a corner.
“When family can’t be around, I take Mandy with me, because the minute I leave my home I have panic issues related to my PTSD,” said the serviceman, who credits his canine with keeping him calm when little else will.
“She’ll tend to pace around me, or just stay very close to me,” Edward said. “She’s trying to keep people away from me, to try to protect me, because I tend to get very defensive.
“She barks, or she’ll growl when people get too close. The moment I notice she’s starting to do that, I start focusing on her. And if I focus on her, it keeps me from having a full-on panic attack, or anxiety attack.”
Evidently, the Scottie's just what the doctor ordered. Since he’s had her, Edward’s been free of full-blown episodes.
The remedy is one seen more and more by Nadia McCaffrey, who’s worked with dozens of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans since her son, Staff Sgt. Patrick McCaffrey, was killed in Iraq.
“Dogs provide a lot of nurturing, a lot of warm care, for those who have gone through trauma,” McCaffrey explained. “We’re going to see more veterans using service dogs.”
“The VA is really pushing service dogs,” Edward agreed.
So it bothered Edward, and McCaffrey, to the point of anger when the sergeant was shooed from the Tracy Department of Motor Vehicles office because of his pooch.
Edward admitted to being on edge when he walked into the Auto Plaza Drive office a few weeks ago, and Amanda was on the alert.
“Already my heart was racing … and Amanda already sensed that.”
So while standing in line, when “a kid” got close to stepping on Amanda’s paw, she let him know about it.
“She barked at him,” Edward said.
Though it was only one bark, Edward insists, a DMV employee and then a manager told him he’d have to leave his service dog — clearly identified by her vest — outside if he wanted service.
Edward, shaking with frustration and anger, left and didn’t return.
He still can’t believe it.
“I still, in talking about it, it really upsets me.”
I asked a supervisor at the Tracy office this week about the incident. Saying employees there weren’t authorized to talk to the media, the supervisor referred me to public affairs in Sacramento. But she did suggest that, though she wasn’t there when Edward had his trouble, there might be more to the story.
Seeking clarity, I contacted Mike Marando in Sacramento. He gave DMV’s official account:
“The service dog was barking at a little boy a couple feet away. We talked to the customer and asked him if he would kindly remove the dog and return to the building so we could assist him.”
Marando said it was a move on the side of safety.
“(The dog) was deemed to pose a threat to other customers,” Marando said. “Our report is that the dog barked several times. So our manager talked to the customer and asked him to remove the dog out of concern for other individuals.”
According to the Americans with Disabilities Act website, service animals can indeed be sent packing if they “pose a direct threat to the health or safety of others.”
But was Amanda really such a menace, or were reports of her outburst greatly exaggerated?
Marando said he fully trusted the accuracy of the report that reached Sacramento, and while the DMV is sensitive to the needs of all its customers, Edward’s case was “consistent with our policy.”
Edward sees it differently.
“She was behaving. She was sitting right next to me,” he scoffed.
At first blush, Amanda certainly seems docile enough — during Edward’s Monday speech, she lay on the floor at his feet, attentive, but calm and collected, even as the Kiwanians burst into applause. No doubt she’s got spunk, but it’s hard seeing the vested dog as a threat to public safety.
It’s impossible for a non-witness to say for sure what happened. But it’s probably safe to venture that a little more common sense and compassion would have stopped the confrontation before it began, and allowed Edward to move on with his day.
Going forward, Edward doesn’t want anything from the DMV, he insists, including an apology. He just wants, as does McCaffrey, to make sure Amanda is the last service animal asked to leave for doing her job.
“It shouldn’t happen to anyone with a service dog … whether they’re a veteran or not,” Edward said. “What I’d really like is some awareness.”
• Contact Jon Mendelson at firstname.lastname@example.org.