Article by Bradley Bommarito
Distinguished veteran Mike Harris visited Roanoke College on Wednesday, Oct. 4 as the speaker for the college’s Lessons in Leadership event. Invited by the Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity in collaboration with the Center for Leadership and Entrepreneurial Innovation, Harris spoke about his career in the military, his position as a lieutenant in the Virginia State Police, and his time as a commercial airline pilot.
His main purpose, however, was to tell the heartwarming story of how his service dog, Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, changed his life for the better after Harris was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. “[Gracie] has actually given me a life that I thought was gone forever. I would refuse to leave the house without my wife. Gracie has allowed me to do things I thought I would never be able to do again,” said Harris.
Harris has become an advocate for Hero Dogs, Inc., a nonprofit organization that improves quality of life for the nation’s heroes by raising, training, and placing service dogs and other highly skilled canines with applicants who demonstrate the most need.
“We raise and train service dogs and place them with heroes, and we provide these dogs to veterans at no cost to them,” said Barbara Ramundo, deputy director of the organization.
Harris was blown away by the quality of the Hero Dogs training program. According to the Hero Dogs website, the veteran/hero dog team trains together under the supervision of a Hero Dogs staff trainer for a minimum of 120 hours (over the course of at least six months) in a variety of public and private settings, including a veteran’s home, school or workplace, community, stores, public transportation, etc.
The training program is customized to the individual veteran’s needs and abilities. “It was an absolutely eye-opening, fantastic experience. When you graduate from the program, you’re very prepared to work with your service dog. Even in public spaces like airports, I’ve never seen any service dogs that were trained as well as our Hero Dogs are,” said Harris.
According to Ramundo, the partnership between Gracie and Harris was especially important to her and the organization. “The placement of Gracie with Harris was challenging but rewarding. It was highly impactful because they ended up being the perfect match,” said Ramundo.
Harris is extremely thankful to the Hero Dogs organization for all that they’ve done for him and for the important work that they do to help veterans cope with their PTSD. “Gracie has been nothing but a blessing. I will do anything and everything I can to promote Hero Dogs because they gave me my life back,” said Harris.
Gracie assists Harris with the onset of PTSD symptoms in several ways. She is trained to recognize physical signs that Harris is in distress, such as trembling and hand-wringing. Once she notices a sign, she nudges Harris to get him to focus on her.
“Each time Gracie performs a task, we reward her with a special treat. She knows that I carry special treats for her while we’re in public,” said Harris.
Harris follows a consistent grooming and exercise regimen for Gracie. “When I get up in the mornings, we go for a one to two-mile walk. I groom her once a day in the morning, and then we go about our day. I walk her in the evenings as well,” said Harris.
Though Gracie has been Harris’ saving grace, Harris said he is incredibly thankful for his wife, Lucy Harris, and the unwavering support that she has provided since his diagnosis. She has become an advocate for the wives of veterans afflicted with the disorder.
“PTSD is a process. You never fix it, but you learn to live with it. You can try medication, therapy, and service dogs, but it never completely goes away,” said Mrs. Harris.
She said the onset of PTSD can come decades after the events that triggered the disorder. Mr. Harris didn’t begin developing symptoms until close to retirement.
“Most of the people who get PTSD have been very high achievers in life. It’s only when you start to slow down that it hits you,” said Mrs. Harris.
Because of the incredible support of his wife and the Hero Dogs organization, Mr. Harris decided to share his story with the world.
“Once I came to grips with the fact that I have PTSD, I realized that I had to tell my story in hopes of inspiring veterans to seek help and treatment for PTSD,” he said.
Mr. Harris hopes that he can help reduce the veteran suicide rate by serving as aa PTSD advocate. He said that 22 veterans a day commit suicide.. “After my talk, several veterans came up to me and my wife to talk about their PTSD-like symptoms and receive information about how to get help,” he said.
The Harrises said they are grateful for the honor of being invited to this year’s Lessons in Leadership event.
“It’s important to educate people about service dogs and how they can help communities, and I thank Roanoke College for inviting us here,” said Ramundo.
Roanoke College professor and CLEI coordinator Steve Baker said he is proud of the Lessons in Leaders program, and he enjoys the process of selecting a new speaker each year.
This is the third year of the program.
In its first year, Roanoke hosted a representative from the Wounded Warriors Project. Last year, the college hosted a Hollywood director and producer.
“When we were selecting the guest speaker for this year, we were looking for individuals who demonstrated true leadership in the framework of appropriate ethics,” said Baker.
Next year’s guest speaker is legendary Virginia Tech football coach Frank Beamer, Baker said. The event will take place in the first week of October.