A Veteran’s Relentless Hero – A Story of Unconditional Love and Camaraderie
*This is an article from the Summer 2021 issue of Combat Stress
By Riina Rumvolt Van Rixoort and JT
A Soldier – JT
I served in the US Army in a reconnaissance platoon for a little less than 10 years. I took to being a Soldier very quickly. I loved the pride, the camaraderie and the sense of purpose – being a part of an elite group, all fighting, sweating and bleeding together for a singular purpose.
I lived by the creed to always keep myself mentally alert, physically strong and morally straight; to display the intestinal fortitude required to fight onto the objective and complete the mission, no matter the cost. After years of rigorous training cycles, multiple deployments and a high operation tempo, I was beginning to break down. I had witnessed more destruction and death than my mind could take. My mental health began to decline.
The physical toll was large as well. The injuries were stacking up and becoming more and more difficult to overcome without having adequate time to heal. Aside from all I struggled through, it was the pain and suffering I saw my brothers going through that broke the warrior inside me.
From Soldier to a Civilian and His Dog
I left the military and tried to transition back into civilian life. Most of the men from my platoon had also transitioned out, yet I still felt distressed. Was it guilt over leaving or was it the fear of being ‘normal’ again? I felt lost, void of emotions and completely unable to connect with people. I once believed that my days spent in the Army were the most difficult days of my life, but here I was, longing for it again. About a year after getting out, I was diagnosed with severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I went through different treatment options and techniques, but nothing seemed to help at all. I was isolating from people, as I could not find a way to connect with them anymore. The only people I wanted to be around were the guys from my team, but they were scattered across the country, living their own lives.
One day, my psychologist made a radical recommendation! He asked if I thought a service dog would benefit me. The idea of a service dog was appealing. I had grown up with dogs my entire life and it felt like a dog would be a natural fit for my lifestyle. I agreed to it and before long, I had a service dog. His name was Phoenix, named after the mythological creature, that rises from the ashes. He was a beautiful, big, black lab, and an incredibly special dog. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, he would come to be the best thing that ever happened to me.
The Dark Days Illuminated by Relentless Love
Time went on and my mental health deteriorated even more. My PTSD was still strongly affecting my life. Physical pain from lingering injuries exposed me to the power of narcotic painkillers. I was being treated by a pain specialist, who was very unethical with his prescribing practices. I was not properly educated about the dangers associated with these drugs. Between my physical pain and my deep emotional scars, I had all the precursors to lead me into developing a powerful opiate-use disorder and that is exactly what happened.
Years later, that physician was arrested and charged by the FBI for illegal prescribing practices that led to the deaths of several individuals. For me, it was already too late, as the drug had its hooks in me. I had sunk to unimaginable lows. Before long, I had lost everything. I was broke and homeless. Many nights, I was sleeping in my car or in an abandoned old trailer that had no electricity or running water. The entire time, Phoenix was right by my side through everything. He never judged me, looked at me in disappointment or complained. He was always so happy just to be next to me. He was the only brightness in my life at that time….no matter if he was sleeping on the bare ground, hadn’t eaten recently, or it was so cold at night that we both relied on each other for warmth.
I was once a member of an elite team of men capable of accomplishing any task put in front of them. Now I struggled to even take care of myself. My mind couldn’t stay out of dark places and that darkness was consuming the light that illuminated my reality. I couldn’t see clearly anymore, and I was convinced that I would rather be dead than to go on like this. The first few cuts were small, but surprisingly, I felt nothing. My instrument was a fish filet knife. My target was my forearms. I cut until red was all I could see. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and waited to fall asleep.
Then the most incredible thing happened! Phoenix sensed my heightened stress level and acted. He did the only thing that he could do in that moment. It also happened to be the most powerful thing anyone could do in that moment. He walked up between my legs, sat down in front of me, laid his head in my lap and looked directly into my eyes. He was telling me, in the only way he could, that he still loved me. It was the simplest gesture but had such a profound affect.
Looking into those big brown eyes reminded me that I couldn’t leave this world yet. I still had more to do here. I fashioned a tourniquet using a leash and large metal spoon, which happened to be right next to me. I was just able to slow down my bleeding and then I passed out. When I woke up, I was in the ER. I had approximately 30 staples and 20 stitches on both forearms from wrist to elbow, but I was still alive!
The Road Back
Phoenix’s actions woke my warrior’s spirit and I got back in the fight! I started my climb out of the darkness that consumed me and Phoenix was the light that guided me. I spent the next two years participating in various inpatient programs at my VA hospital to help rehabilitate myself. I spent 30 days in a substance abuse program. I went through a 90-day PTSD program twice and spent a full year in a transitional residency program.
I have been through many difficult, demanding and stressful times. I’ve experienced physical pain that borders torture. Dirt and sand in every crevice of my body, my skin became so raw that it felt like rubbing alcohol on an open wound. I carried 80-pound rucksacks for countless miles, and received friction burns from fast-roping that was so bad it left scars. Sleep deprivation so intense we zombie walked until we reached the objective and then it was time to begin the mission. I had been through all of that, yet ahead of me was my most difficult task, with a failure rate higher than that of any military school. I was in the fight until the very end, no matter the price to pay. Phoenix was right by my side the whole time, giving me the courage and strength to keep fighting. Knowing he was there helped me get through every single tough obstacle I had to overcome.
Giving Phoenix the Gift of Time
Just before Thanksgiving of 2019, I started noticing something strange about Phoenix. I didn’t know exactly what it was, but I was connected to him enough to know something was wrong. This prompted a series of veterinarian visits and tests, but it wasn’t until New Year’s Eve that what was wrong was discovered. By this time, Phoenix’s symptoms had gotten worse. He was dragging his back-left paw and was having some balance issues. I had taken him to see a veterinary neurologist, who conducted a brief visual examination and almost instantly, recommended that an MRI be done. The MRI was supposed to take 60 minutes but that turned into 90 minutes, then two hours, then three hours. As time dragged on, I knew in my heart that something horrible was coming.
The doctor finally came out and led me into her office where she broke the news. The MRI showed that Phoenix had a tumor growing on the base of his spinal cord right where it connected to the brain. I can’t remember much of anything else that was said. All I could think of was getting next to Phoenix. He was still waking up from anesthesia for the MRI but I had to be next to him. I demanded that they take me to him. I sat on the ground in the exam room with Phoenix in my arms. He was just waking up and opening his eyes. Those big brown eyes looked up at me once again, except this time it was me telling him I loved him; that I still needed him here with me. Phoenix saved my life once and it was now my opportunity to save his. Nothing was going to stop me from doing everything that I could to make that happen.
Fighting for Phoenix
The doctor explained to me that the only possible option of fighting was radiation therapy to shrink and kill the tumor. I had spent everything I had in savings on the MRI and all the other diagnostic tests to discover the tumor. I decided to try to reach out to whomever might potentially help. I made phone calls and sent emails to all the organizations I could find that might help with funding. I had petitioned over 50 organizations. Some responded, some didn’t, but none could help.
I was more determined then I had ever been to succeed at my mission. At every turn or around every corner it felt like I was met with resistance. I had to keep working during this time, in order to make as much money as I possibly could. If it came to it, I was willing to give up every possession I had in order to make the money to pay for the radiation treatment. Phoenix’s health was deteriorating more and more each day. I couldn’t take him to work with me anymore and I couldn’t leave him at home. I was fortunate to have a family member who knew what Phoenix meant to me volunteer to take him during the day. Their home was out in the country with lots of land to roam. Although it was difficult for him to walk now, especially in the cold and snow, Phoenix never let his illness slow him down. He loved being out in the woods. When I would pick him up at the end of the day Phoenix wore a great big puppy smile and wagged his tail in happiness because he got to be outside. Once again, his relentless determination was my example to follow. I couldn’t stop fighting for him, he was to special of an animal to me. He was my warrior spirit and so I fought on. Even when everyone else around me wanted me to give in and accept defeat, I fought on. I was never going to surrender, how could I? Phoenix had saved my life multiple times. There was no way I would stop short of doing everything I could for him. If it meant giving up everything I had and would ever have in the future I was prepared to do it.
That was until I received a call from a woman named Sally Williams. She was from a small group out of New Jersey called The Brodie Fund. They help people fund lifesaving cancer treatments for their pets. Sally proceeded to tell me that The Brodie Fund typically only helps with funding inside a small network of veterinarians in the surrounding New Jersey area. However, they had read my petition and were so moved by Phoenix’s heroic story, that they knew they had to help in any way possible. Sally Williams and the Board of Directors at The Brodie Fund decided to reach out to another organization called Sidewalk Angels. This organization is administered by Rob and Marisol Thomas. Rob Thomas is the lead singer of the band, Matchbox 20. Sally told Phoenix’s story to Marisol and Rob. They, combined with The Brodie Fund, immediately decided they would fully fund Phoenix’s radiation treatment. With this news, I had done everything I could do. My mission, up to that point, had been completed.
As much as I so desperately want to be able to end this story with saying Phoenix went through his treatments, recovered and is a happy, healthy puppy once again today, I cannot. Complications arose and sadly, I had to say goodbye to Phoenix. Nothing can take away the pain that I felt and will continue to feel, not even time. I feel like a parent that lost their child and that I failed to protect him when he needed me to the most. Even right now as I tell this story, a tear is sliding down my cheek.
Sally Williams and the rest of the amazing team at The Brodie Fund gave me another gift. They created a sister charity to The Brodie Fund in honor of Phoenix. That charity is called Brodie’s Phoenix Fund and its mission is to help save Veterans’ pets fighting cancer by offering funding for lifesaving and life-extending treatments. Knowing that I have that platform to continue to talk about Phoenix keeps me going. Even though he is gone, he is still awakening my warrior spirit and I will keep fighting on to the objective; because one never knows when even the simplest, smallest gesture, like a dog laying his head in his handler’s lap, could save another person’s life.
Phoenix, I love you. I miss you and I will NEVER forget you!