Aaron’s San Diego Union Tribune Opinion Article

November 22, 2023

U.S. Navy Veteran Aaron Neely shares his stance on how dogs transformed his life and recovery after service. As Aaron retires his first service dog and welcomes Murphy as his second, Neely illustrates how far he has come in the last five years with Liberty by his side.

Aaron Neely’s San Diego Union Tribune Opinion Article

Opinion:I struggled a lot as a Navy veteran after serving. My service dog changed everything.

When I first started having problems, it was hard for me to grasp. Problems showed up at work, then with the family, and eventually led to divorce, breakups and trying to co-parent kids. It was just a mess.

When I applied to Shelter to Soldier, an Oceanside nonprofit that adopts dogs from local shelters and trains them to become psychiatric service dogs for post-9/11 veterans suffering from post traumatic stress, I mumbled a lot and I didn’t speak up. It was hard for me to leave the house. It’s hard not to be emotional about that chapter of my life, because that’s all I thought my life was going to be. Just sitting on my couch and seeing my kids only occasionally.

I was on my way to Shelter to Soldier recently and I thought, wow, it’s been five years and today I am very engaged in both my children’s lives. I have developed some independence outside my service dog, who has been there for me every step of the way. I went from being very unhealthy, and I am no fitness model, to going to the gym, hiking, and getting out and about. Today, I do more and live more. There are so many wonderful things that I do each day that are enriching my life that were not happening before having my service dog, Liberty. Thanks to her, I feel rejuvenated, experience peace within myself, and have developed new and healthy relationships. All these things that are now possible because of Liberty — because I earned her — and today, I want to give back to Shelter to Soldier because it has invested so much in me and changed my life.

Liberty recently had to retire from her service dog work, and Shelter to Soldier was able to celebrate her retirement with a special ceremony before I graduated with my successor service dog, Murphy. It was a tough transition for me “letting go” of Liberty as my companion and transitioning her to a pet dog life of retirement in my home. She has some arthritis and mobility issues that were limiting her ability to be on her feet as much as I needed from a service dog. Through Shelter to Soldier, any previous graduate (in good standing with certifications) is automatically eligible for a successor dog should the original service dog need to retire from duty for any reason. Thanks to those on the incredible team at UNITE Hair who sponsored my second service dog, Murphy, that the Shelter to Soldier team adopted from Labs and More and trained specifically for my needs over the past year and a half.

The night before my graduation with Murphy, I said our usual “Liberty, let’s go snuggle” command which is her cue for us to go to bed. Over the last few weeks, she has had a hard time with it. But that night I told her “It’s your last night on duty!” and she got up and went right to bed. I realized at that moment how far Liberty and I have come in five years. Liberty came out of training and straight to an NFL football game with me in Seattle — the Seahawks against my Vikings. She came home on a Wednesday night in the rain, and we were in Seattle the next day, and a few days later at Monday Night Football — and she just did great. Liberty just sat up after laying there the whole game and rested her chin on my leg. For the past five years, it’s been a lot of that. Her being there for me.

Unfortunately, with my diagnosis, I chronically ruminate about suicide. I’ve had a couple of attempts and thank God, never completed it. It’s just something that I’m going to have to deal with. And I’ve noticed with the dogs and through treatment, those thoughts are less and less, and life feels more like it’s worth living. The kind of diagnoses I have will go through life with me. Seeing how Liberty has supported me the last five years gives me so much hope for how Murphy will support me in these next five years. This is my future, this is my life, and the Shelter to Soldier team has created that for me. These dogs don’t come home this well prepared to love unless they’ve been loved.

So, if you’re a veteran, those at Shelter to Soldier are not folks who are feeling sorry for you. They are investing in not just your future, but the future of your friends and your family because we are in a battle for life. I’m thankful to the donors and thankful to Shelter to Soldier. My heart is full of gratitude for what it does for all of us.

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