Tuesday, May 31, 2011

With dog at her side, Iraq War vet Tracey L. Harris-Cooper moves forward

They're a team now, best friends - the tall, good-looking rescued dog and the Iraq War veteran battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

Wherever Tracey Cooper-Harris goes these days she knows Blaze has her back.

He's the eyes in the back of her head. Her 24-hour protector and comfort blanket, all rolled into one. He's her hero.

Lori Ramey, a trainer for the Sam Simon Foundation, which provides rescued dogs for the deaf, found Blaze sitting alone in a kennel at the Ventura County Animal Shelter in Camarillo early last year.

He was a stray found wandering the streets. Shelter workers told her he was probably a backyard dog with little or no human contact. They put his age at around a year and named him Blaze for his bright red coat.

"He was so calm and composed just sitting there, exactly the kind of dog I was looking for," Ramey said.

Her job for the Simon Foundation was to find the perfect dog to train as a psychiatric service dog for an Army veteran suffering from PTSD.

Ramey wanted Blaze, but there was one problem. So did a lot of other people. The shelter held a lottery.

"Every once in awhile, fate intervenes," Ramey said. "I won."

It didn't take Blaze long to show his real colors once she sprung him from the shelter. He wasn't the mellow dog Ramey thought he was.

"He began jumping on everything in sight, grabbing anything he could get in his mouth, and wildly running around chasing

squirrels and birds," she said.

"He had conned me. All that calm demeanor was a lie."

It took Ramey almost a year to calm Blaze down and teach him the tasks Cooper-Harris would need done.

To stand behind her at the ATM and make sure nobody got too close to her on the streets. To turn on the lights in her apartment so she wouldn't be walking into a dark room at night, the worst time for her.

To find her cellphone and keys and bring them to her in case there was an emergency and she couldn't get them.

To become her Man Friday.

While Ramey trained Blaze, Cooper-Harris spent her days going to classes at California State University, Northridge, before heading over to the Sepulveda VA for her PTSD counseling sessions with doctors.

By December of 2010, it was finally time for Blaze and Cooper-Harris to meet. It was love at first sight. Blaze jumped all over her, licking her face, his tail frantically wagging, knocking over everything in sight.

"It was like fate decided these two should be together," Ramey said.

In April, after three months of hard work at the foundation in Malibu bonding with Blaze, Cooper-Harris brought him home to her apartment in Pasadena.

"He's my de-stresser, my constant physical reminder that I'm here in the present, and not to let my mind wander back to the past," she said last week.

"When I wake up in the middle of the night the first thing I look for is Blaze. He's usually knocked out in the corner snoring. But just seeing him there makes me feel safe and stay in the present, not the past."

It was 2003, early in Operation Iraqi Freedom. Cooper-Harris was an animal tech sergeant caring for military police dogs at Army and Marine Corps bases on the Kuwait border.

"Saddam knew we were coming. He hit our bases hard every night with long-range bombs as we pushed forward into Iraq," she said.

"Night time became the worst time for me."

The bombs left their mark, but it was what happened to her as a young recruit at the beginning of her 12-year military career when she was only 19 that scarred her in ways she is still dealing with today.

Some of the men in her unit found out she was gay.

In a letter Cooper-Harris sent to President Barack Obama in May of 2010 in support of the repeal of "Don't Ask, Don't Tell," she described what happened to her.

"The deal was simple: perform sexual favors and my secret was safe," Cooper-Harris wrote. "I let these men have their way with me in exchange for their silence.

"I, frankly, am still ashamed of what I had to do to stay in the Army. I continue to attend counseling sessions provided by the Department of Veterans Affairs for what I went through.

"The memories still come back to haunt me some 16 years later," she wrote the president.

A couple of months after writing that letter she received a letter back from the White House telling her the president was taking steps to repeal the policy, but more work needed to be done.

"I wrote that letter because I have friends still on active duty and I don't want anybody else going through what I went through," Cooper-Harris said.

A lot has happened in her life since she's begun to open up about the causes of her PTSD. With Blaze at her side, she's moving forward.

Last Tuesday she graduated from CSUN with a major in kinesiology, the study of sports and movement. Blaze stood at her side on stage as she received her diploma.

Her real passion in life, though, is to help returning veterans reintegrate into society - a problem that is only going to grow as our soldiers come home with their own dark memories.

"I was in the post office last week and dropped my keys. The floor was slick and Blaze ran to get them, sliding all the way.

"He came back with the keys and this big smile on his face. I praised him and started laughing. Blaze was just as happy as could be.

"And so was I."

Dennis McCarthy's column appears Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday.

Source: http://www.dailynews.com/news/ci_18168386?source=rss

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