Fort Report: Walter's Story
Amidst the nasty partisan arguments occurring in DC this week, I stood outside the U.S. Capitol on a brisk sunny fall day with fellow Republicans and Democrats to speak about a new important idea. Our goal is to broaden the services available to America’s struggling veterans. This idea doesn’t involve more traditional treatment options, no extra buildings, or prescriptions. It involves service dogs.
Walter Parker, a Vietnam War veteran, joined us before the media. He recounted the horrors of war he experienced nearly five decades ago. “I witnessed the worst things I never could imagine,” Walter said. “Any veteran that goes to war comes back not knowing how to pick up those pieces.”
Walter frequently paused to gather himself as he recalled the injuries to his body, including a third round of cancer from exposure to Agent Orange. Walter also spoke of the invisible injuries he suffered the moment he returned to American soil: crowds of protesters mocking and spitting on him; psychological wounds to his self-esteem; the fear and shame he felt when he wore the uniform. Walter could barely hold back the tears, as we watched in stunned sadness.
For twenty years, Walter said he could not leave home to go on the simplest of errands. Afraid to go to the grocery store. Afraid to hear loud noises in crowds. Terrified to go to the movies not knowing what scenes would bring back the awful memories haunting him at night. Walter was hopeless, his family more so. He was dying on the inside, debilitated on the outside.
Desperate for answers, Walter’s family applied for a program called PAWS 4 Vets. Congress had authorized the Department of Veterans Affairs to publicize and study programs connecting service dogs to veterans with post-deployment mental health concerns. Now we are ready for the next step. The PAWS (Puppies Assisting Wounded Servicemembers) bill that I am sponsoring would move us past the current study phase to more fully integrate service dogs into treatment options for veterans.
After gaining access to the PAWS 4 Vets program, Walter thought he would get to choose his canine companion. Instead, the pet chooses the vet. With his specially trained golden retriever Jackson at his side lending comfort and support, Walter stared down and said, “When that dog looked into my eyes, I knew he could see my soul.”
From the moment that Jackson chose Walter, he was literally connected to Walter’s belt, so he could detect any change in emotion, moment by moment. When Walter felt fear, Jackson knew what to do. When Walter felt anxious, Jackson knew how to calm him. “I have never felt so good in my life...I'm living a life I never thought I'd live,” Walter told us. “My wife and I went to a see a movie for the first time in 20 years.” The movie they saw: The Intern.
Walter’s story is just one of many extraordinary veteran stories. Whether they saw battle, whether they cooked, cleaned, ran a computer system, or served our country in another way, every veteran’s service is important and meaningful to us all.
Perhaps you have a story to tell. This coming Tuesday, November 26, I will conduct a Veterans History Project in Nebraska. If you are a veteran and would like to share your experiences for preservation in our nation’s archives at the Library of Congress, please join us at either of these locations:
10:00 a.m. – 12:00 p.m.
702 Fort Crook Road South
Madonna Rehabilitation Hospitals Sheridan Room
4:00 p.m. – 6:00 p.m.
5401 South Street.
Please call my office (402-438-1598) to let us know you’re coming.
We’ve also invited a special guest from Normandy, France to tell us some exciting news about the work underway towards “Preserving the Legacy of D-Day.”
The Veterans History Project is a great way to preserve your legacy. Please join us!