My ’87 Ford Escort was jam-packed with boxes and Hefty bags filled with all the clothes and George Michael CDs I owned. My mom was in the driveway crying softly; my five brothers and sisters standing at her side, sad and confused. Just a week earlier, I had been planning on living at home while I attended the University of Florida, a few towns over. But now, after one fight too many with my father, there I was – 18 years old, sad, scared, and furious – fishtailing my way down our ragged dirt road, heading for the sanctuary of my cousin Chrissy’s couch up in Jacksonville.
As I tore out of Interlachen, abandoning my friends, family, and the college plan I’d worked so hard for, all I could think was,
“What the hell is wrong with that guy?”
That guy was “Wild” Bill Hoadley. At his best, my dad was a proud, brilliant, and fun-loving father, just the greatest. But there were times – too many times – when a darkness would creep in. If something set him off, look out. His mischievous grin and twinkly eyes would be replaced by rage, just full-on rage. We didn’t understand how he could get so upset, so quickly over so many dumb things. Now of course, I totally understand it. Before he met my mom, my dad did two tours of duty deep in the jungles of Vietnam as a United States Marine.
My dad had PTSD, and he never fully shook it.
When he left the Marines, they gave him a couple medals and a Purple Heart for the physical wounds he suffered…and then basically a pat on the back and a “suck it up, soldier” for all the psychological damage he endured. Growing up, I remember plenty of people asking me if my dad had “flashbacks,” but I don’t remember anyone ever asking if he had issues in public, mood swings, night terrors, difficulties reintegrating into society, survivor’s guilt, or any other PTSD symptoms we know of today.
God, I wish someone had. I can’t imagine how much more peaceful life would have been for him and us if someone had put their finger on the root of his problem and said, “this will help.”
The final straw between my father and me was so dumb and so trivial… it still makes me a little sad: after years of having super, super long hair, I had it cut back to just regular long hair. Because of that – an unauthorized haircut – my dad, my hero, flipped out, cursed me out, and threatened to kick me out. I had it. Actually, I #$%#@% had it, so I packed up and left.
Fortunately, my father and I reconciled not long after I left (he was the kind of guy who was easy to get mad at, but hard to stay mad at). He asked me to move back home, so I didn’t have to work two jobs to make ends meet, but I declined. I liked the freedom of being on my own, and more than that, I really liked the serenity of not living in a house haunted by what we now know was PTSD.
My dad passed away a few years ago from Agent Orange-related cancers. We were very close when we passed, and I miss him very much. I hadn’t started with K9s For Warriors before we lost him, so I didn’t really fully grasp the impact PTSD had played in his life, and in mine, until I got here. Now, sometimes when I hear our graduates’ stories, I think to myself “oh, yeah, I remember that time dad....”
Those moments bring me a little bit of peace, but also a little bit of guilt. Now I know all those blow-ups, all those fights with my family and our extended family weren’t all his fault. He had untreated PTSD, a condition that contributes to 20 veteran suicides EVERY. DAY. Frankly, we’re lucky we had him as long as we did.
As I’ve developed a deeper understanding of how PTSD manifests itself in different ways, I can also look back and see how my dad subconsciously navigated his condition and created coping strategies to make life as tranquil as he could. Sailing was a lifelong passion of his and brought him incredible joy, both back when he first returned from Vietnam and was in a bad place mentally, and then again later in life when he bought a small steel sailboat for him and my mom to cruise around the Caribbean on.
And then there was Rosey…
Rosey was this nasty, little Chihuahua that he showed up with one day when he was in his late 60s, and then kept showing up with everywhere he went. That dog hated everyone but my dad, and everyone but my dad hated that dog. But she was the epitome of loyalty, which is something of a Chihuahua trait apparently, and made him happy to no end. Rosey was his constant companion – I can even remember a few of my daughter’s soccer games where he watched from his car with that little terror standing on the dashboard because field officials told him he couldn’t bring her on the sidelines. He had a stronger bond with Rosey than some of the people he’d known for decades.
It’s funny, but looking back, I think Rosey and my dad might have been pioneers in service dog therapy – but we just didn’t realize it.
I miss my dad so, so much, and wish I could tell him all about the work we’re doing at K9s For Warriors. I think he’d be proud to know that my work is helping veterans like him get the help they need, and that maybe I’m helping to spare a father and daughter, or mother and son, like us from having all the dumb battles we had.
In fact, I know he’d be proud…and then he would argue with me non-stop until I could convince Shari Duval to let Chihuahuas into the program.
If you’re reading this and any of it sounds familiar, don’t give up hope. There wasn’t anything like K9s For Warriors when I was a kid, but there is now – and it could literally save your life and restore the peace you’re looking for.