Veteran Eric Haynes’ life was spiraling downward when he went online to register with Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP). It had been approximately 10 years since his service in Iraq with the United States Army ended. He separated from his wife, was estranged from his daughters, and struggled with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“I felt I was running out of places to turn,” said Eric. “I was masking the pain of everything – my daughters, my life, war-inspired night terrors. I was at the end of my rope.”
After attending a few WWP connection events – designed to bring warriors together to foster support and build a peer networking group – he received a call from WWP Talk program staff offering weekly telephonic, emotional support. The non-clinical program establishes a scheduled time for warriors to talk about anything. Conversation topics include (but are not limited to) family life, military experience, work, and relationships. WWP Talk aims to help warriors build resilience, develop coping skills, and achieve goals that improve quality of life.
“This program changed my life forever,” said Eric. “Being able to work through my inner thoughts and emotions without being judged or ridiculed was something I didn’t know I needed until I experienced it. It made a life-or-death difference.”
During a conversation with WWP Talk staff, the idea of getting a service dog arose, and Eric loved it. He called a few agencies recommended by WWP staff that specialize in service dogs for veterans and learned there was a two- to three-year wait. Eric’s excitement deflated immediately until a Facebook message popped up that had absolutely nothing to do with service dogs.
“I had written a song with five other veterans about our combined 21 deployments and the difficulties we faced returning home to a country we all loved dearly,” said Eric. “I submitted that song to a legendary Grand Ole Opry singer/songwriter on Facebook, and then received an invitation to a songwriters’ workshop in Georgia. I felt this was a case of divine intervention for reasons I wouldn’t understand until later.”
Arriving at the workshop in rural Georgia’s mountain region, Eric struck up a conversation with the retreat organizer. After instructing him where to park, she asked Eric something that caught him off guard. Without knowing Eric’s background or personal story, she asked if he knew any veterans looking for a service dog because she had been training a Belgian Malinois who was a retired U.S. Army bomb-sniffing service dog and felt she was ready to be paired with a veteran coping with PTSD.
Eric explained that he was a veteran, told her of his years of coping with PTSD, and the WWP programs he was involved in, especially WWP Talk and the recommendation he get a service dog. When he explained there was a waiting list, the retreat organizer told him, “well, your wait may be over.”
In this moment of what Eric describes as a “miracle intervention,” the woman went to her van and brought the dog, Ciara, over to Eric. The two bonded instantly, and Ciara was soon placing her two front paws on Eric’s shoulders and licking his face in excitement.
“I fell in love with her immediately,” said Eric. “I was amazed that Ciara was whimpering and crying out of excitement, and she just kept giving me kisses. I’ve never experienced anything like that before, and I knew we were meant for one another.”
Eric found out that as a former bomb-sniffing dog, Ciara coped with PTSD as well and was triggered by alarms, abrupt noises, and other loud sounds. This strengthened their bond, and Eric felt he could help her cope with PTSD. This was the first time Eric felt empowered over his own PTSD by focusing his attention to help Ciara.
“When I wake up from night terrors, she is right there to let me know everything is OK and that we are safe,” said Eric. “In turn, when she whimpers and shakes in her sleep from nightmares, I gently wake her up and tell her that everything is OK and that she is not overseas anymore.”
Comforting Eric is not Ciara’s only mission. She is also a lifesaver. Eric has sleep apnea, fibromyalgia, and restless leg syndrome, among other ailments – and Ciara is there to help however she can. Eric explains that one night, he experienced full-body seizures while sitting in a recliner chair followed by short periods of unconsciousness. Ciara jumped on him during the initial seizure to keep him from falling off the chair and licked his face until he regained consciousness. This cycle went on for three hours, and she didn’t move the entire time.
“I realized after that she did not want me to get up from that chair,” said Eric. “Had I moved around trying to get upstairs and had a seizure in the process, I could have fallen and hurt myself even more. She stayed with me the entire time until the seizures stopped, and I felt OK enough to move around.”
Eric and Ciara have been together for nearly one year and have already logged a lifetime of memories. She has traveled with him to New York City to audition for America’s Got Talent; she has joined him at WWP events like a Penn State football game to connect with other warriors and meet the players and coaches; she has gone camping and hiking and attended music festivals; she has accompanied Eric in an ambulance ride to the emergency room when he fell ill with abdominal pain. In August of 2018, she even paid a visit to the WWP headquarters in Jacksonville, Florida, and now has her own YouTube channel, “Ciara Heart of a Service Dog.”
In the time they’ve been together, Eric noticed a dramatic reduction of PTSD episodes. He no longer wears a sleep apnea machine, and his bouts of depression are far and few between. He now spends his days working on his music, reuniting with his daughters, planning more adventures with Ciara, and staying involved with WWP.
“Ciara and I are living proof that genuine, unconditional love can be a blessing in so many ways,” said Eric. “Had it not been for Wounded Warrior Project to take me into its Talk program, giving me an outlet to share without judgment, and float the idea of getting a service dog, we would not be here today.”
Eric’s goal is to live the WWP logo by being able to carry a fellow wounded veteran toward health and healing like he was carried not so long ago. And Ciara is one of many steps to get to that point.
“Wounded Warrior Project is about not leaving any warriors behind on the battlefield of life,” said Eric. “They are picking them up and carrying them forward toward safety, healing, and health so they can continue on their path, and be as independent as possible, but never, ever left alone or behind.”
To help more warriors like Eric, visit https://wwp.news/Donate.
Since 2003, Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP) has been meeting the growing needs of warriors, their families, and caregivers – helping them achieve their highest ambition. Learn more: https://newsroom.woundedwarriorproject.org.