BONDED IN SERVICE

“I felt so isolated and worthless when I came home,” expressed Christy Gardner when asked about her military service and the challenges she faced reintegrating into society as an amputee. Gardner served as a military police officer in the United States Army and retired as a Sergeant in December 28, 2007.

Christy had a spinal cord injury while serving overseas that changed her life unexpectedly. “My physical limitations and struggles really started to take a toll on my mental health as well.” After years of rehabilitation, the doctors recommended a service dog to help with daily tasks and PTSD.

Christy can confidently accomplish daily tasks, participate and compete in sports such as hockey and she has a better outlook on life, because of her service dog, Moxie.

Christy admits that there are many things to consider when introducing a service dog into your life and she has taken the time to share her insight in hopes of helping other veterans.

CJ: What challenges did you face reintegrating into society?

CHRISTY: Awful! I felt so isolated and so worthless when I came home. I spent so much time rehabbing on active duty and then again for years at the VA. I felt like a professional patient and a real drain on society. My physical limitations and struggles really started to take a toll on my mental health as well. I went from being a college athlete and above par soldier to needing help with virtually everything in the beginning.

CJ: When did you decide to get a service dog and why?

CHRISTY: The doctors recommended it while I was still on active duty, but the waiting lists are typically rather long, so I didn’t get her until I came home, about a year I think. The doctors said they had seizure alert dogs out there and that she could also help with PTSD and mobility issues as well. She’s done that and more.

CJ: What is your Service Dog’s name? Breed? and personality?

CHRISTY: I have a Golden Retriever named Moxie… She’s amazing. She’s so smart and so perfect for me. She loves junk food, sports and the beach. I’m pretty sure the ocean and the hockey rink are her favorite places.

CJ: What were your expectations with your four-legged friend?

CHRISTY: I expected her to help with seizure alert and response issues, so I could live more independently and safely.

CJ: How does Moxie help?

CHRISTY: She can actually sense and alert me to seizures and is trained to get my neighbors or fetch the phone if I need help. She can also push handicapped access buttons, hit light switches, and fetch items like the car keys and my wheelchair if it’s out of reach.

CJ: Tell us about the bond between you and your dog?

CHRISTY: We recertified as a working team last year and this was the last question on the test. They said there was no question on this one; that you can see it in the way we read each other and react to one another. She’s been with me every second of every day for years. I know what every expression she makes means just by her face or body language.

CJ: What advice would you have for other veterans who are considering a service dog?

CHRISTY: They’re a lot of work, but so very worth it. She’s given me a lot of my independence back and has also brought a lot of joy to my life. She can help in so many physical ways that she’s specifically trained for, but she also helps with my mental health and PTSD.

CJ: What are the do’s and don’ts of having a service dog?

CHRISTY: Ugh! This one I could go on forever… Every time I go anywhere I need to make sure I have all of my stuff, but also Moxie’s. When I fly, I need to pick kibble and treats and a toy. If there’s extreme weather, she might also need her cooling vest or mat or even her shoes for hot pavement, ice, snow, or salty sidewalks that could cause chemical burns on her paws. There’s so many don’ts that irk me too. Like real service dogs don’t typically pull on a leash or belong in a carrier. How are they doing their job in a carrier/cage? I see so many in the airport claiming it’s a service dog in a little carrier, just so they don’t have to pay the airline fees. Even if a dog is a real, accredited service dog, they can be kicked out of a facility if they’re barking, aggressive, or incontinent. It drives me nuts when people claim their canine is a service dog when it’s untrained and lunging at my dog. There’s even a law in several states against misrepresenting a pet as a service dog. The fine in Maine is $500 for that. Under the ADA, a service dog is trained specifically to mitigate a person’s disability and they’re supposed to do at least three tasks to mitigate that disability. I also wish people knew the differences between service dog, therapy dog, and emotional support animals (ESA’s).

CJ: Any final words of encouragement for those considering a service dog? or having problems coping with societal reintegration?

CHRISTY: regardless of their interests or disabilities, I recommend folks find support groups. It can easily be a Facebook group for service dog handlers in your area or a group for amputees, or local veterans like Team Red, White and Blue (RWB). Team RWB’s mission is to enrich the lives of America’s veterans by connecting them to their community through physical and social activity.

I also think veterans should check with their primary care doctor about referrals to Recreation Therapy. It’s a department at all VA’s with folks that know about all of the local veteran’s resources. They’re a great resource when transitioning too, so you know what’s in your area and also have things to do that keep you occupied or to get you involved with a new squad/team.

The Disabled American Veterans (DAV) helped connect Homeland Magazine and Christy to share her inspirational story to veterans of service who may be considering getting a service dog. DAV has been building better lives for all of our nation’s disabled veterans and their families since the Great War.

Many thanks to the DAV for their commitment to our disabled veterans in improving their quality of life.
Thank you Christy for sharing your challenges and great insight. Homeland Magazine wishes you and Moxie many years of enjoyment “on ice” and in the ocean.

By CJ Machado,
photo journalist and veteran advocate

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