Steve Moore, 33, served two tours in Iraq as a sergeant in the Army. Now he lives in California with a golden retriever from Paws for Purple Hearts—which teaches veterans how to train service dogs for their physically disabled comrades at the Palo Alto VA’s Menlo Park campus, as illustrated above—and runs a similar program called Dogs Helping Veterans in Rohnert Park.
When I got out of the army for the second time, I came back to California. I was married. I got a decent job within six months, and I had a son shortly after that. For maybe a year or so, things were going pretty good.
Then our second son was born, which turned my whole life upside down. When I saw both my kids together, the only thing I could see in their faces were these two little Iraqi boys hanging off the archway over the roadway leading into the town of Husaybah, who were executed for selling me sodas at the checkpoint and helping Americans, supposedly. I started having nightmares of people dropping out of the sky from nowhere, hanging from their necks.
I pretty much ran out on my family at that time. I lost my job. I was an adrenaline junkie. I had a very fast motorcycle, and I was the stereotypical sports bike rider, endangering myself and the well being of everyone around me pretty much at all times. I was drinking really heavily. I was arrested several times on alcohol-related events. I pretty much became a shut-in, locked myself in my home for about 2 years straight.
Then one day, I was doing Internet research, and I stumbled across Bergin University, a school with a program that helps people train service dogs to overcome their PTSD. So I figured, why not?
During my first week, I was paired with a golden retriever named Hannah. I had to take her everywhere. On our way to school one morning, a car drove past me and flipped me off, because I had been staring into space. That set me off. I was just getting ready to do a very unsafe U turn across four lanes of traffic to chase this guy, and when I caught Hannah’s big brown eyes. It’s like they were staring me in the face saying, “What’s going on? Is this really necessary?” And just like that, I let my anger go.
Before graduation, I got paired with a golden retriever named Chew. He’s been by my side 24/7 for almost a year. And he’s been instrumental in helping me turn my life around. Before, I didn’t want to interact with the real world. I ate junk food all the time. Once I got Chew, it forced me to get out and be active, because the dog needed to be walked. Before, I didn’t want to interact with anyone because, when you’re a vet, people ask really awkward questions like, “Did you kill anybody?” But once I had Chew, people started focusing on him—“Oh that’s a gorgeous dog. What’s his name?”
Now I’m taking what I’ve learned and showing veterans how to train service dogs for physically disabled veterans who truly need them—teaching them how to turn lights on and off, retrieve dropped keys or cell phones, and open doors.
I’ve also started to talk to my kids again. My sons Aidan, 4, and Joshua, 6, love playing with Chew. Joshua actually gave me picture he drew of Chew. That made me feel pretty amazing, better than I’ve felt in a very long time.
—as told to Olivia B. Waxman