Photo by Brian Kaiser.

Marine’s Best Friend

For many, the old Vets Memorial was merely a venue space, but the opening of the new memorial museum this fall is an important event to a lot of servicemen and their families that have lost much in fighting for this country. The validation that this museum represents is that their sacrifice will not be forgotten by anyone.

This is especially important to me, because my brother, Corporal Sean Haggard, served and risked his life for the country in the Marine Corps for over eight years. Deployed to Iraq twice, my brother was honorably discharged from the Marines in 2010 and went into civil service. Sean left the Marines as a disabled veteran; yet he was still a young man, and a man that wanted to live his best life without going crazy.

There are stats and stories all over the news of former soldiers who are not seeking the help they need, and falling into hard times, and sometimes—deadly circumstances. Few can imagine what these men and women have to deal with after they have left the battlefield, and it can be difficult to try to get through to them when you have no frame of reference for what they are experiencing. Mental health, especially for veterans, is a big issue in this country. And the unfortunate stigma on seeking support leads to people who are suffering not getting the help they need.

“The thing that is so hard to adjust to when you become a civilian again, is that you stop this high-functioning action that your brain gets used to when you are training or on duty. You lose your purpose.” — Corporal Sean Haggard.

One stigma, though completely baseless, is that it is a sign of weakness to go to therapy. A lot of tough guys (and gals) that led a military life would rather eat a sriracha-soaked scorpion that was pregnant with a ghost pepper than admit to, or be labeled as, needing therapy. I have often heard the motto, “pain is weakness leaving the body,” from my brother. Someone with that kind of perspective on life isn’t going to accept that sort of label, no matter what the downside may be for them personally.

But it was that sort of tough-guy attitude that led him to find an alternative means of coping outside of his unit. At first, re-adjusting to civilian life wasn’t easy. He felt angry all the time, and that he had no direction in life after his service. That’s when a friend suggested he get into Jiu Jitsu at the Relson Gracie Jiu Jitsu Academy in Columbus. He liked grappling in the Marines (though it was way more intense in the service they way he would tell it), and he decided to try it. Once he starting learning, it was just like he was back with the squad.

“The thing that is so hard to adjust to when you become a civilian again, is that you stop this high-functioning action that your brain gets used to when you are training or on duty. You lose your purpose,” he said. “When I began Jiu Jitsu, it was like being on a team again and having a goal. It made me feel like I had more stories to tell about myself, after I got back home, more to my identity. I wasn’t just a former Marine.”

There was an added bonus of the calm that comes with Jiu Jitsu training—you know you can handle yourself. Even your nightmares know you can handle yourself.

The next thing Sean did to complete his transition to civilian life, was to get his dog, Shadow—who he calls my nephew. Shadow is a Dutch Malinois, aka a “fur missile,” and he was the last piece of the puzzle for my brother. Sean calls his dog his, ‘battle-buddy,’ the one creature he could 100 percent rely on to watch over him. Sean knows that many veterans do not want to be labeled things like PTSD, depressed, or even disabled. They don’t want to walk around with Lassie in a neckerchief—they want a beast on a chain. The effects that come with being in a combat setting include anxiety, fear, or even flashbacks. They don’t seem so overwhelming when you have your faithful battle-buddy by your side.

“If I’m having a bad day, working with dogs takes my mind off it,” he said. “Working dogs gives me a battle buddy to watch over me.” But I see that having Shadow has done so much more for my brother’s life; his dog gave him a focus and a direction.

Through hard work with Sean and other experienced trainers, Shadow has graduated to working K9 events with the police. His training covers basic obedience, home protection, bomb and drug sniffing, and veteran care. Now, “Veteran Care,” doesn’t mean he reads them stories at night. It means setting them up with bite-force competitions, which are huge in the tough guy world. Learning how to do that unique talent can give a somewhat lost military person a purpose again; an epic purpose, that a gladiator might have.

Right now, Sean has bought six acres of land in order to train dogs, raise animals, and even put aside space for a community garden for former and current military members to grow and have fresh produce. Sean manages his acres with the antique 1949 tractor, named Beirut Betty, that he got from someone online that turned out to be another former Marine. The brotherhood between veterans, no matter what branch they served, or even when they served, is an instantaneous connection. That connection even gets extended to me, because Sean’s family is also included in the family of the brotherhood.

The value of his relationship with his dog—and eventually dogs—was something that anyone that knows him or even meets him will hear about. Ad nauseam. They are his constant companions, and everyone in my family knows that him and his dogs are a package deal at all family events. He impresses me every day with his passion about responsible dog ownership, and the benefits that having a fur companion can bring to someone– especially a veteran.

That is why he has been helping to pass a GI Bill that will allow veterans to use their GI money to help pay for these trained dogs. It is a work-in-progress and an important goal for him. If you or anyone you know is searching for a way to cope with the world off the battlefield, maybe a tactically trained canine companion will lead you to calmer days. I know for my brother and his dogs, the sky’s the limit.

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This story was written by Emily Arbogast.