Army veteran wants to educate public on using service dogs
The wounds that Army veteran Daniel Smith has may not be visible to the eye, but that doesn't make them any less real.
Smith, a 41-year-old Beech Island resident, served in the U.S. Army from 1988 to 1994 after spending time in the Reserves and later deployed to Iraq in November 2005 as a member of the Army National Guard.
There, involved in route clearance missions with his unit, Smith was injured by a roadside bomb and had blood streaming from his ear -- an injury that was not properly diagnosed as a traumatic brain injury until years later, he said.
He later learned that he had broken several bones in his back and neck and suffered severe nerve damage.
"I really didn't know how bad I was hurt," said Smith, now a retired veteran who volunteers his time as a liaison for wounded soldiers who return to Fort Gordon from overseas duty.
Shortly after being medically evacuated back to the United States in September 2006, Smith suffered a seizure, for which he still takes anti-seizure medication.
Smith attempted to assimilate back into daily life but found it harder to do than he had imagined.
"I was having severe post traumatic stress, and I started withdrawing from everybody and everything. I got to the point where I couldn't go to the store with my wife. ... I wouldn't go anywhere public because I just didn't feel comfortable around folks I didn't know."
Help came to Smith about two years ago in the form of a 69-pound black Labrador named Jefferson Davis, sponsored for him by the Chamber of Commerce of Jefferson, N.Y., through the America's Vet Dogs organization.
For six months before Smith met the dog that is now his best friend, Jefferson Davis was trained to handle Smith's needs. By the time Smith met the dog in Long Island, N.Y., to be trained himself, Jefferson Davis knew how to assist his owner.
Jefferson, whom Smith takes everywhere with him attached to a leash and a harness, is trained to catch Smith if he falls, to sense a seizure coming on and to interfere if Smith becomes anxious or has a flashback and brings him back to reality.
Jefferson got his first crash course in nightmare intervention on their second night together, when he sensed that Smith was having a nightmare and jumped onto his chest and licked him across the face.
"We connected, and I knew I had a buddy then, not just a dog," Smith said emotionally.
While Jefferson provides a lifeline for Smith to be able to function without fear, the use of a service dog presents challenges that require patience and a willingness to explain.
"It's kind of frustrating when you run across someone who looks at you and says, 'Well, you look healthy, you look normal, why do you have a serve dog?'" Smith said. "I tell them I was wounded in Iraq, and he helps me with my wounds that I received in Iraq."
Service animals are not only for the legally blind, he often tells people.
He has been questioned about his dog in the past and has even been seated in the back of restaurants far away from other patrons because of his dog, in violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which prohibits private establishments from discriminating against the disabled. The law states that establishments are required to allow those with service animals in all of the areas that customers are generally allowed.
Smith also finds that people often want to pet the black lab with the friendly demeanor, and he has to explain that the dog is working.
Sometimes, Smith will tell Jefferson to "visit," and Jefferson takes the command as a sign that he can move toward a person and be petted or accept a belly rub, but when he's wearing his vest - to which one of Smith's two Purple Hearts is affixed - he's typically all business.
"The public education is ongoing," Smith said. "Service dogs are helping to heal our wounded soldiers. ... You don't have to be missing an arm or a leg to be a wounded soldier. There are wounds that you cannot see."