By Matthew Miller
Growing up my favorite color was camouflage, to my mother’s dismay. Compromises were made; for school pictures I was allowed to wear camo pants, but had to wear a navy colored polo. I was fascinated by two things: the military and hunting. I loved watching war movies and shows about hunting and fishing. As I reached junior high, my love of camo was subdued and I eventually dressed more to fit in with everyone else.
In high school I completed my hunter’s safety course and was all set to go to the woods. I was allowed to tag along with my grandpa during Iowa shotgun second season. Those memories of sitting on a log with my grandpa are some of my most cherished moments of my youth.
During my senior year of high school I was faced with the big decision; what are you going to do with your future. I decided to enlist with the National Guard and go to college. After I completed my bachelor’s degree at the University of Northern Iowa, I choose to extend my enlistment. I enjoyed my drill weekends and hanging out with the guys. Soon after I was promoted to Sergeant, our unit commander approached us and asked if we would be interested in volunteering for a deployment to the Middle East. Without thinking, I stood-up and was the first to volunteer!
Just over two years later and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, our unit was notified that we would be deploying to the Sinai, to support the Camp David Peace Accords between Egypt and Israel. In 2005 we were again called to active duty, but this time we would be sent to support the combat efforts in Iraq.
The mission in Iraq was escorting convoys across Western Iraq, one of the most dangerous parts of the country. The operating tempo was high and pushed the Soldiers to their limits. They never failed to amaze us with their perseverance and their fortitude. After almost a year in country, many IEDS and some casualties, we were informed that our tour was going to be extended. The news was devastating for morale, but our Soldiers pushed-on and we completed our tour with a sense of pride.
For as hard as I push my Soldiers, I tried my best to give them some time off from the mission to help them recharge and recover. What I did not realize is that I was pushing myself and continued to place the mission first. The skills that kept me on point and to accomplish all that I was taxed with, was changing me. It was changing my brain and kept me on hyper-arosual. I thought those changes would be temporary and that “normal” life was possible again, but they had changed the way my brain operated.
Shortly after I returned after two years away from home, I noticed things were not the same, I was getting angry, anxious doing the things I use to have no problems with (large crowds, noisy rooms and the grocery store), and I had a very short attention span. This went on for several years, and it had become my new “normal”. Other people would make comments such as: “you use to be so happy” and asked what happened to me. I denied that anything was different, but wondered if I had truly changed.
After another deployment, this time to Afghanistan, loved one’s expressed their concern. The term “PTSD” started to come-up. I told them, I wasn’t suffering from PTSD and made comments that PTSD was just an excuse for the weak-minded.
Over time my anxiety and anger grew, but now I was becoming depressed along with the other feelings. In June of 2014, I finally went to see my doctor to try to see if there was something that could explain my feelings. To my shock, he suggested that I was probably suffering from PTSD. That really hit me hard. A few months later I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder by the VA.
After my diagnosis, I started medications and some counseling though the VA. The medications helped bring me closer to normal, but I knew I was still not where I should be. This went on for another 6 months. One day I saw on Facebook that a Soldier of mine was raising money for a service dog through an organization called Retrieving Freedom. After some encouragement from loved ones, I reached out to that Solider and asked him about how a service dog was helping him. Over dinner a few nights, we spent hours talking about our lives, telling war stories and about what his service dog was doing for him. At the end of the night, he encouraged me to reach-out to Retrieving Freedom and apply for a service dog.
That night when I got home I completed the service dog application online with Retrieving Freedom. Soon after, I was in Scott Dewey’s office, the Co-President of RFI, talking to him about what a service dog could do for me. That was the start of my journey with RFI.
I spent a lot of my free time the next few weeks at the RFI facility in Waverly. I worked with a few dogs and learned more about the process of training a service dog. One evening while I was helping feed the dogs in training at the facility, things changed very quickly. One by one we let the dogs out of their kennels and fed them. One of the very last dogs we let out was a female yellow lab named Nala. Most of the dogs ran straight to the door to go outside to do their business when we let them out, but Nala did not. She ran straight to me and greeted me as though she had known me forever. That was it, I knew that Nala was the prefect match and the bond only grew stronger. Over the few months we worked together on the skills that she needed to become a certified service dog, pass her public access test and the specific task she could do for me. It wasn’t all work though; we also worked on hunting and retrieving tasks.
Nala has changed my life in so many ways. She has been my constant companion and my best friend. She was there to support me when I was weak, comfort me when I was anxious, and love me no matter what I was facing. Being outdoors with Nala is some of the most cherished time I could want. The joy of seeing her work on her retrieving skills and fieldwork is amazing.
Retrieving Freedom has given me something that no doctor could, no medication could or counselor could, freedom. Freedom to help other Veterans, freedom to experience new opportunities, freedom to reconnect with the outdoors and freedom to live a fulfilled life.
RFI and the outdoors