SOLEDAD — After spending 17 years in the U.S. Army, military life was all Ramon Reyes knew. But when he was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Traumatic Brain Injury from events that occurred in Iraq, his military career was cut short — and it took many years for the veteran to accept the fact that he was disabled.
“There are many casualties of war that go unnoticed, unappreciated or unacknowledged, and I really felt like one of them,” said Reyes, who lives in Soledad. “I speak from my own experience when I say that the unseen wounds that so many of us carry can be, and are, just as deadly as an IED or mortar round. The difference is that I was trained to defend myself from these man-made weapons. But when it came to the aftermath of what went on in my mind, I stood defenseless.”
Fortunately with the help of Operation Freedom Paws, a California-based service dog training organization, Reyes would eventually receive the tools and training to help battle his inner turmoil. And the key to this was service dog Huey.
“Huey has saved my life in so many ways over the past six years,” Reyes said. “Not only has he helped me manage my PTSD symptoms and helped me become the father and husband I once was, he can detect a dizzy spell is coming on by smelling changes in my body’s chemistry and then stands between my legs to help me balance.”
In honor of Veterans Day, Huey won this year’s Dog Chow Visible Impact Award for his impact on Reyes’ life, detecting dizzy spells and migraines before they happen and helping the veteran open up to his family about his struggles. The award was announced Nov. 9 by Purina Dog Chow and actor Anthony Ramos as part of the Service Dog Salute Program.
“All of our service dog finalists have made a significant impact for their veterans, but Huey’s story rose to the top for the thousands who voted,” Ramos said. “The Visible Impact Award let us hear first-hand the role PTSD service dogs play, and we know there are more veterans who could benefit from a service dog the way Ramon has. We hope to inspire change so any veteran in need can get the help they deserve.”
As the winners of the Visible Impact Award, Huey and Reyes will receive $10,000, and Operation Freedom Paws will receive $25,000. In addition, Dog Chow will donate $75,000 to the Association of Service Dog Providers for Military Veterans to help train more service dogs.
From the moment Reyes met Huey at Operation Freedom Paws, the pair had an incredible bond.
“Huey came up to me right away and hugged me,” Reyes recalled. “Then he jumped into my lap and just sat quietly. We bonded right away.”
After their pairing, Reyes and Huey continued formal training together for the next year — time which enabled the service dog to really understand the nuances of Reyes’ behaviors and physiology and know when Reyes is in a good place or when he’s in need of assistance. For example, symptoms of Reyes’ TBI include both dizzy spells and intense migraines.
With dizzy spells, Reyes explained, “Huey can detect when a spell is coming on by smelling the changes in my body chemistry.”
When this happens, the service dog will go and stand right in between Reyes’ legs to hold him up and help him balance. And sure enough, within a matter of seconds, Reyes will start to get dizzy and Huey will already be right there in place to balance him.
Huey is also able to smell when Reyes is going to get a migraine well in advance of when the migraine actually hits. Because of this, every morning Reyes has Huey smell him right when he wakes up. And if the service dog licks Reyes’ ear after smelling him, then Reyes knows he has a migraine coming and needs to take his medicine.
“Because of Huey’s ability to do this, by the time my migraine hits, it’s just a mild headache rather than a full-blown debilitating migraine,” he said.
The ways in which Huey has been able to mitigate Reyes’ PTSD and TBI symptoms have been infinite.
The service dog can quell Reyes’ anxiety at home with a jump into his lap or a lick of his face. He can physically pull the veteran away from triggers in a public crowd. The chocolate lab was even able to detect a serious bleeding ulcer in the veteran before a doctor diagnosed it.
But according to Reyes, out of all Huey’s remarkable skills, perhaps the most critical one has been the service dog’s ability to play the role of family interpreter.
When Reyes first came back into civilian life, he was unable to open up to his family about anything. His wife was struggling to find ways to help him cope with his new challenges while raising their two children. But Reyes wouldn’t talk. Instead, when anyone in the family would inquire about him, he would lash out angrily.
Over time though, little by little, the veteran began to open up to Huey. Many times the service dog would remain quietly at Reyes’ side, providing judgment-free support.
Other times, if he was feeling really down, Huey would go right over to Reyes’ wife and begin nudging her to get her attention and then walk back toward Reyes to let his wife know that the veteran was in a bad place and she needed to check in on him. Because of this forced interaction, Reyes eventually began to talk to his wife and children about his frustration with his situation and disabilities.
“The biggest thing Huey has helped me to do is become the father and husband that I once was,” Reyes said. “With my pride, I would say I’m fine. I’m doing good. But Huey was like, ‘no, you’re not doing good,’ and was letting me know. So all of his actions helped me to open up to my family and let them know what I was thinking.”
Six years ago, when Reyes decided to get in contact with Operation Freedom Paws, he just wanted to get back to “normal” — just like most of the veterans who apply for a service dog. And while his life can never be exactly how it was before his time in service, it is clear that Huey has made an extraordinary impact on helping restore Reyes’ happiness and reconnecting him with his loved ones.
“I shut myself down from everyone, I pushed my family away. I had incredible anger. But ever since Huey has come into our lives, it’s gotten easier,” he said. “Huey has awakened a part of me that has been dormant since my return from Iraq. Rather than isolating myself and pushing away my family, I’ve been able to do things with my wife and my kids. I’m able to enjoy myself again in their company.”
Today, Reyes pays it forward as a mentor and trainer at Operation Freedom Paws, where he is able to share his skills and experience with other veterans.
“Every day is a struggle and I know life will never be the same,” Reyes said. “But with Huey, I can make the impossible possible. Now I can stand up tall, head held high and be able to say with pride, ‘I am a disabled veteran.’”