“Healing” is a funny word. Sometimes it means total restoration, like a papercut that disappears in a couple of days. Sometimes it means repaired, but different -- like a broken bone that’ll never move in quite the same way even after the fracture is gone. Other times, especially when it comes to struggles with mental health, healing is a process rather than an endpoint. And as rewarding as that process can be, it’s a tiring one. Nobody should have to face it alone.
For Charlie Hernandez, a U.S. Veteran, teaming up with an ECAD service dog was a critical step in the right direction. Charlie is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is unfortunately not uncommon among veterans. When he was at a VA Hospital in the Bronx, a doctor recommended that he explore the option of finding a service dog.
Charlie wasn’t too hard to convince. When he met up with ECAD co-founder Lu Picard to discuss his options, a dog came up and sat down next to him. He remembers feeling immediately comforted and starting to cry. In that moment, Lu knew that Charlie needed an ECAD dog in his life.
"I just felt very comfortable and safe," says Charlie. "It was like a safety net. Something that's going to be with me."
Charlie isn’t alone in turning to ECAD for help with his PTSD. ECAD’s Project Heal® serves Veterans dealing with post-service physical disabilities, psychiatric challenges, or both. By joining Project HEAL, Charlie was able to pair up with a dog that wasn’t just rigorously trained as a service dog, but was also specifically taught to cater to the needs of a Veteran.
This is where Valor comes in, Charlie’s aptly-named dog. When Charlie came on-site at ECAD for Team Training, Lu used her legendary matchmaking skills to make Charlie and Valor a team.
"Lu has the eye to see if this dog makes sense for you," says Charlie. "She sees how you relate to the dog and how the dog relates to you. She's a matchmaker. She has that algorithm in her."
Over the course of thirteen days in training, Charlie learned how to give Valor commands, to walk with him, and to take excellent care of him. Charlie recalls Valor’s energy and enthusiasm throughout the process. Already, he felt Valor’s unconditional love, and knew that Valor would bring some joy into each day.
Charlie first brought Valor into his life to address past traumas, such as being at the World Trade Center the day it fell. What he couldn’t predict, however, were the ways in which he would be able to lean on Valor during the difficult times ahead. Charlie had two cancer scares after bringing Valor home. Last year, Charlie had a heart attack, and before he even knew what was wrong, Valor started nudging him to get his attention. Trusting Valor’s instincts, Charlie drove to the hospital where a doctor confirmed that he was having a heart attack. Charlie gives Valor credit for helping him get treatment quickly.
When Charlie attends VA meetings, Valor will individually greet everyone he meets, making sure they’re doing okay. Charlie dubs Valor an ambassador for Vets who suffer from invisible wounds every day.
"My dog is a saint," says Charlie. "I've gotta share my dog too. That's love."
And, from a more personal perspective, Valor is a member of the family. Charlie admits, "Valor's picture is in front of my children's pictures in our house." It’s become a household joke that Valor is the “happiest guy in the world.”
A spirit like that is too wonderful not to share. Charlie claims that Valor is known and loved all over New York. Once, Charlie brought Valor to Israel to talk to other soldiers with PTSD, where he watched Valor interact with each soldier they met with his typical friendliness. When they came back to Israel for another visit two years later, the Israeli airport staff remembered Valor by name, greeting him with a “Shalom, Valor.”
Clearly, Charlie knows firsthand how an ECAD dog can cause a ripple effect of healing. He emphasizes the invaluable returns that come from each donor’s support. Giving to ECAD is like saving a soldier’s life, he says. He feels as though he could never give enough Thank-you’s to the people who give, care, and share. This Veteran’s Day, if you’re looking for a way to honor and support people like Charlie, giving to ECAD is a great way to do it.
"A service dog is not just your dog, it's your lifeline,” Charlie says. “To have him is a blessing, to take care of him is a joy. [I’m] able to get out again because of this dog. [I’m] able to live again because of this dog."