Ciara didn’t know she’d be meeting her soulmate when she went with a friend to a songwriting retreat in rural Georgia in 2018. Eric wasn’t expecting to find love when he traveled from New York to attend the event at the urging of a fellow singer/songwriter.
At the time, Eric Haynes was dealing with a lot of turmoil. He was in a domestic violence shelter, his marriage upended, fighting depression and homelessness. He was also dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and traumatic brain injury (TBI) he incurred during his time in the Middle East while serving in the Army. He was getting help for his depression through Wounded Warrior Project® (WWP), and he saw the opportunity to attend the invitation-only songwriting workshop 1,100 miles away as the perfect way to put his new coping skills into action.
“At that point in my life, I just thought, ‘this is my new life.’” Eric said. “I have to take a chance; I have to step out, so I did.”
Little did he know that decision would change his life.
A Fateful Meeting
Ciara also struggled with PTSD from her time serving in Iraq. Loud noises and piercing sounds would put her on edge. The fact she was at the retreat was pure happenstance. She attended as a guest of one of the workshop’s administrators, Tricia, who would introduce the pair.
Eric met Tricia when he was signing in at the workshop and she happened to ask him if he knew any veterans. Tricia worked with Ciara for three years and felt in her heart there was someone special out there for Ciara. She believed Ciara would best connect with a veteran like herself and that Ciara deserved to find her lifelong partner – although she didn’t necessarily expect it to be that weekend.
Eric relayed that he was a veteran. He shared some of the issues he’d been dealing with, talked about the advice he got from his resources at WWP and from his friends. To Tricia, it seemed like a perfect match, so she introduced the two the first chance she had during the retreat. For Ciara, the connection was immediate. She greeted Eric with a big hug and even a kiss. Eric dropped to his knees, tears falling from his eyes as he got caught up in the moment. His car alarm suddenly blared after the alarm button on his key was accidentally activated in all the excitement. Despite her PTSD triggers, Ciara didn’t even flinch. Tricia couldn’t believe it. She’d never seen Ciara like this. “She’s chosen you as her safe place,” Tricia told Eric. And he knew Ciara was his safe place, too.
“We’ve been inseparable ever since,” Eric said.
Finding a Lifeline
Eric credits Ciara – his emotional support dog and best friend – and the WWP Talk program with providing him the spark to forge ahead and make a new path for his future. Ciara helped give Eric the confidence to do what he loved — write music and perform for others. Eric even combined his passion for music and his love for Ciara in his song, Tears of Joy, which he wrote the day they met. In the song, Eric sings, “I realized then and there you were a soldier just like me. You suffered greatly because of war, but now you’re safe with me ...”
To find out more about WWP’s mental health programs, including WWP Talk, click here.
Being with Ciara also gave Eric the strength he needed to try new things and the realization he didn’t have to go it alone. To celebrate their first year together and his renewed resolve, Eric took Ciara on a cruise. They have visited Times Square in New York City, attended concerts, football games, UFC fights, and even performed on stage together. Eric and Ciara have been able to see the world through each other’s eyes, sharing their story of unconditional love, and garnering attention everywhere they go.
“We just want to show other veterans that we don't just live life, we thrive in life now,” Eric said. “We just want to be able to share our story; that you can not only live but thrive.”
They’ve also posted videos together, hoping to inspire other veterans who may be dealing with similar obstacles, or just to bring a smile to someone’s face.
“If we can help one person by sharing and opening up about ourselves, then we feel it was all worth it.” Eric said.
Spreading the spirit of hope
While Eric sees Ciara as a guardian angel who helped save his life; he’s also amazed at the effect she has on others. During one cruise, they ran into a police officer who shared a personal story of losing his K9 partner of nine years. Ciara, with her sensitive and kind nature, immediately jumped into action. She gave him one of her comforting hugs, the kind Eric knew well from their first meeting.
“At that point, he just broke down,” Eric said. “She just stepped in to show him love because she knew there was something wrong. She knew it. … She does stuff like that all the time. She understands.”
As their bond grew, so did their opportunities, including expanding their family. Last summer, Ciara helped Eric welcome another love of his life into the pack when Eric proposed to his now-fiancée, Donna. The grand proposal included an onstage performance by Eric, a giant “Will You Marry Me?” banner, a Cinderella-inspired diamond ring, and, of course, a delighted Ciara.
“They love each other dearly,” Eric said of Ciara and Donna’s relationship. “She adores Ciara and Ciara just loves her.”
Eric is committed to sharing their story and inspiring others. He’s currently writing a book about his life, his military experience, and finding his purpose in that spring of 2018. He also continues to perform his music and share his story at events across the country. Ciara is also showing little sign of slowing down. She’s still spry and agile at 103 years old — or 14 in Belgian Malinois years.
Whatever the future holds, Eric realizes his and Ciara’s story is special. He wants veterans who are struggling to know there’s help out there and to keep fighting, whether it’s finding someone to talk to, or making a new best friend … with man’s (or woman’s) best friend.
“Being there for people, that's probably the biggest thing that can be emphasized,” Eric said. “Making sure that somebody is not alone, because I felt I was alone during those tough times, and I never want anyone to feel that way. That's probably my biggest thing is just to be able to share our story, and making sure people always know they're not alone.”
To read more about Eric and Ciara, go to ciaraheartofaservicedog.com.
To check out Eric's virtual concert and help other wounded warriors, click here.
Contact: — Paris Moulden, Public Relations, firstname.lastname@example.org, 904.570.7910
About Wounded Warrior Project
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.