By Annette P. Gomes, Army Warrior Care and TransitionMay 13, 2019
ARLINGTON, Va. -- Retired U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Carlos Cruz was determined to create a better life for himself by joining the military on May 13, 1997 at the age of 21.
"It seemed inevitable. My father was Marine and did a tour in Vietnam. Later he joined the Army. We were stationed in Germany in 1983, a small kid and his family from New York City, moving to the farm lands of Europe."
Cruz held several positions during his 20-year career including; Medical Unit Training Non-commissioned Officer, gunner, platoon sergeant and a team leader with a Special Reaction Team. His roles have called for him to see and experience many difficult things and Cruz believes his post-traumatic stress disorder was developing throughout his military career. However, it was a 2013 deployment as a military policemen to Afghanistan that would change his life.
"It was the straw the broke the camel's back. As a military police officer you deal with all of the problems including; burglary, assaults, rapes, suicides, and even murder. I have seen bodies in the early parts of decay, the after effects of a suicide and assisted with police chases and arrests," Cruz said.
After returning from his deployment, Cruz began working with the Army Wounded Warrior Program in Orlando, Florida. The experience gave him a new perspective to help him with his own PTSD. Cruz began working with a therapist and was introduced to K-9's for Warriors; a service dog provider for post-9/11 veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain Injury, and military sexual trauma. In January 2018, determined to take control of his own health, Cruz applied and was accepted into the warrior-canine class.
The three week training program provides a trained service canine, housing, meals, equipment, veterinary care, and 120 hours of training in a family-type atmosphere that provides essential peer-to-peer support. The service canine is already trained when it is paired with the veteran. The training period is to teach the veteran how to use his/her new service dog, and to facilitate the bonding necessary for the two to be a successful team. Cruz was paired with a new battle buddy and teammate, Hannah, a 66 pound black lab.
"The [canine program] is a huge step for veterans with PTSD to have some sort of normalcy. I'm still dealing with my emotions. I think the biggest thing that I have learned about myself is that I am continuing to learn how to pace myself through the hard times. Hannah keeps me grounded on the hard days when I try not to get so overwhelmed with everything."
Cruz says even though his active duty days are behind him, having Hannah helps him cope with his past trauma while he moves forward in his civilian life.
"There isn't a day that goes by that I don't think about what happened during my 2013 combat deployment. Having Hanna makes it a little more tolerable. She's there for me when my wife and daughter can't be and she's become an incredible addition to my family," Cruz said.