“Reporting For Duty” Pairs Heavy Emotions With New-Found Appreciation For Service Dogs

For Picks of The Litter, a regular book review series, Ranny Green critiques "Reporting for Duty: True Stories of Wounded Veterans and Their Service Dogs" by Tracy Libby (I-5 Press).”

“War is hell,” Union Army Gen. William T. Sherman, was famously quoted during the Civil War. Every one of the 15 disabled veterans showcased in this book will certainly testify to that for the lingering lifetime effects it has produced.

But each – from World War II, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars – receive a much-needed kick start after being paired with a service dog, an unknown emotional aid during Sherman’s time.

In some cases, the canines are lifesavers – for those subjects who were considering suicide – and for others, a thrust to re-enter public life after months of self-imposed seclusion stemming from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or Traumatic Brain Disorder. Their candidness is apparent throughout, and equally important, “none wanted to be portrayed as victims,” the author emphasizes.

The dogs become instant therapists for the veterans who are suffering from a wide mix of disorders – recurring dreams, panic attacks, crippling migraines, insomnia, fear, agoraphobia, loneliness, and grief associated with the loss of fellow soldiers.

Accented refreshingly with photos, “Reporting for Duty” is a colorful mosaic showcasing the dynamics of dogdom amidst the tough realism of everyday life faced by veterans today. Each vignette assumes a weather imagery of dark clouds giving way to bright sunshine in these once robust servicemen’s and women’s lives.

One of the common denominators is that the wounds of war are not always visible. In other words, the battles rage inside these veterans long after they return home, affecting their family life and ability to work and leaving them with an invisible “no trespassing” sign on their backs.

Many are not paired with a dog until they are already in a deep chasm and trying to fight their way out. For some, a dog is a tough sell. They are simply not believers, thinking it will be an additional responsibility that produces no dividends. An attitude adjustment quickly ensues once the highly trained service dogs do what they do best – become either an alert mechanism prior to emotional attack or help the veteran put some of his/her psychological turbulence in the rearview mirror and move forward.

Some of the true nuggets from this riveting read come from the quotes of those profiled. Here is a taste of several:

Kent Phyfe: “We are truly a team [Iris, a Labrador Retriever-mix] that is there for each other – no questions – just like being in a foxhole. . . . Iris has brought so much love into the house. She brought my family back together, stopped me from becoming a statistic, and helped me have a goal in life again.”

Michael Jernigan: “If Brittani [Golden Retriever/Labrador Retriever-mix] had not blocked my path into the street, I’d be dead. I’d be a hood ornament on a Toyota Prius. Not a manly way to die for a man who survived three roadside bombs.”

Rachael (no last name listed): “I have a disability that I am learning to both live with and talk about. God provided Jug [yellow Labrador Retriever] as a tool to do both. I don’t know where I would be without him. I’m not going to spend the rest of my life – 24/7 – in a darkened room. I still have bad days, but Jug gives me something to get up for – even when my head is pounding.”

Paul Utter: “I can’t tell you the difference this dog [Ellie, a Golden Retriever] is making. She gives me safety, confidence. She is able to detect or bring me out of a flashback faster than any human. She gives me comfort. It’s like she takes you out of yourself.”

Whether it’s on a base or military medical facility stateside, Libby writes, “Therapy [known as Combat and Operational Stress-Control Dogs] dogs have the mysterious ability to sense which soldiers need them the most, which soldiers are having a bad days, and which soldiers are feeling sad or depressed. The dogs also know that they can make the soldiers feel better by hanging out with them. By simply playing, fetching, getting petted, or, in many instances, providing a sympathetic, nonjudgmental ear.”

 In addition to the 15 profiles, Libby addresses prison puppy programs, therapy dogs in history, shelter-to-service animals, and how dogs read us by decoding our body language.

“Reporting for Duty” is packed with plenty of heavy emotional artillery yet balanced with a solid mix of compassionate realism. And plenty of new-found appreciation for the versatility of man’s best friend.