We are especially honored to have Marilyn Wilson as a guest writer on the 9/11 tenth anniversary.Tsunami and Hal worked valiantly at Ground Zero following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. They would not save anyone. When Hal first laid eyes on the twisted steel he knew no one could survive such horror. The team brought closure to many families but no one was found alive. But Tsunami saved Hal.
Hal enlisted in the USMC and served in Vietnam and Laos with the 1st Battalion 9th Marines – The Walking Dead. Fortunately, he returned home but his life was never to be the same again.
Our current wars have made us aware of PTSD. Though there is documentation of the affliction dating back to Biblical xtimes, Vietnam veterans knew nothing of PTSD and no treatment or support was offered by our government. Suck it up and get on with your life.
An avid reader of literature and history, Hal once hoped for a career as a teacher. Instead he drifted across the country and in and out of jobs.
I met Hal over 20 years ago; a sweet, bright, compassionate man who still carried the war in his heart and mind. I urged him to seek help at the VA hospital but Hal said he was fine and could deal with things. He was a Marine. Hal self-medicated.
I introduced Hal to dogs. He was immediately smitten, fascinated by their intelligence and loyalty.
We traveled a bumpy road; lost jobs and tortured nights tempered by his tender nature.
We lost our old dog Jill. Hal and I had separated, again. I went to find a new pup to fill the emptiness. Hal and I were hikers. In the woods, Hal experienced peace. We often talked about training a dog to do search and rescue work. I would find a working dog breed. When Hal recovered we would train that dog together I thought.
I knew of a breeder of German shepherd dogs who recently had a litter. I looked the teeny pups over and we then sat in her kitchen to examine the pedigree papers. Under the table was a young dog – 11 weeks old.
“What’s with this dog?” I asked. The breeder told me the pup was not for sale.
“Why not?” I asked.
The breeder told me that the pup was special, the last to be born, delivered in the back seat of a Lincoln on the way to the vet.
“I held the puppy in my hands and her little feet were moving like she was running real hard,” the breeder related. “I told my husband as we drove to the vet, ‘This puppy is going to go places!’”
I stared at the pup, who got up and curled around my feet. I left the breeder that afternoon with a puppy who was not for sale and destined to go places. I called her Tsunami because she entered my heart like a huge, powerful wave.
Hal came back home again with promises to change. He was always sincere, but the nightmares continued. We forged on and trained Tsunami to find people.
We often trained with another Vietnam veteran Major Paul Morgan who worked with K9s during the war and owned a security business that utilized dogs.
On September 11, 2001 I arrived at work and saw the news on the television. The world would never be the same again. Hal was working as a carpenter in the Hamptons. Cell phones were not the norm in those days and Hal would not learn of the attacks until he went to a bar with the guys at lunchtime. He saw the planes hit the towers and immediately came home. He packed his SAR gear as we watched the horror unfold over and over again on the television. Early the next morning Hal and Tsunami, Paul and Cody boarded the Long Island Railroad and went to NYC to do what they could.
The combat seasoned duo were put to work to look for the lost. At one point, Paul saw a Franciscan monk on the pile walking about and blessing the rescue workers. Paul asked him to bless the dogs. He did and then blessed Hal and Paul.
I recall seeing Hal and Tsunami on the evening news. They were dirty and looked exhausted. Hal had a haunted look about his eyes. Maybe this was not a good idea I thought.
Hal spoke of the smell. It was the same in Nam he said. Hal’s nightmares worsened along with the drinking.
In time rescue teams from all over the world went home. Since we lived near the city we were often invited to K9 award ceremonies. Hal and Tsunami received praise, medals, plaques and many, many hugs and tears of gratitude. Hal was spit on by his fellow Americans when he returned from Vietnam. It was over 30 years late but Hal was being thanked, finally. Hal and Tsunami were heroes. Tsunami continued her training – Hal’s battle buddy. She slept by his side, she peered deep into his soul. They were aware, ready, prepared.
Prior to 9-11 we were attempting to raise money for a memorial dedicated to War Dogs. We were too aware of what happened to the faithful K9s who served in Vietnam. Our attempts to raise money were not terribly successful but after 9-11 the dogs were finally getting their due recognition. And so was Hal, but the nightmares continued.
Hal and Tsunami and Paul and Cody were asked to lead the procession of the animals on the Feast of St. Francis at St. John the Divine Cathedral in NYC. After the ceremony Hal met with the Episcopal Bishop of NY who blessed Tsunami. Hal asked the Bishop to hear his confession and asked for atonement for the lives he took so many years ago in South East Asia.
Tsunami curled up close to Hal when the nightmares returned. She was the only living being who could get that close during those times. He held her and rocked himself back to xsleep.
Hal injured his foot while on the “pile.” I asked him to try to see someone about PTSD. He was starting to think about accepting the fact that the war injured him; not with a bullet or shrapnel but with a mental wound that would not heal. He saw that Paul, who was in treatment for PTSD, was growing stronger since their rescue and recovery work at Ground Zero, while he himself was plummeting. He began seeking help. He started going to meetings. He visited the chapel at the hospital.
The following year, Hal and Tsunami were asked back to the cathedral to again lead the procession. This time Hal was sober when he led Tsunami down the long aisle of the cathedral.
Tsunami continued still to lie by his side but now the sleep was deep and peaceful.
The War Dog Memorial was erected and dedicated. Tsunami was the model, Hal her handler. Tsunami and Hal went on many more missions searching for the lost.
In 2006, Hal and I retired and moved to the Northern Adirondacks. Hal joined St. Thomas Episcopal Church and attended healing classes. Like Tsunami, Hal was a savior, a rescuer. Hal, accompanied by Tsunami, gave talks about PTSD to veteran’s groups, attended retreats for veterans returning home from war, and continued SAR work deep in the forests and mountains. Hal and Tsunami …battle buddies and rescuers, saving the lost.
Hal died at home on May 4 of this year after a fierce, short battle with cancer. He was surrounded by his family and of course his battle buddy Tsunami.
Tsunami is aging. She was the product of traditional veterinary medicine for half of her life. Over vaccination, numerous treatments of antibiotics and steroids, commercial dog foods were her bane. And a search dog works hard and many times in hostile environments. She suffered from tickborne diseases, arthritis and heart disease. Fortunately, with the help of alternative medicine and fine holistic veterinarians like Margo Roman, DVM, Tsunami is enjoying her retirement.
On the 10th Anniversary of 9-11, Tsunami and I will attend a ceremony at Liberty State Park (Findingoneanother.org) honoring the work of the K9 SAR teams and so many more rescue and recovery workers who shed sweat and tears during the exhaustive search and recovery operations following September 11, 2001.