In pictures, Sargent Casey Smalls looks much younger than his 23 years. His dark hair and ocean blue eyes coupled with a large frame made him a standout among the rest of the young brooding crew in the picture. The Marine Blue Star Platoon was the top hardcore unit in Iraq for destroying an opposing army’s heavy weapons. Mortars, heavy machine guns and anti tank guns were disarmed before breakfast. They also patrolled the schools near the border. Casey enjoyed this part of the job since it allowed him to get to know the families and kids pretty well in the surrounding area. They were his family away from home in some respects, and he would miss them when he left. Orders came in that they were going home. Green Bay Wisconsin was encased in 4 feet of snow and ice by now, but the frozen terrain was a welcome relief in Casey’s mind. December in Iraq was 100 degrees in the shade. Sand everywhere. Shoes, shirts, socks, boxers, boots – even in the food. Warm dirt sloshed around your mouth with every bite. Casey couldn’t get the thought of his mom’s meatloaf and mashed potatoes out of his mind for the past 48 hours. Getting closer to it by the hour seemed to intensify the cravings.
Casey wanted to be a soldier since he was three years old. He grew up near a recruiting station where he’d find some reason to mosey his way over to pick up pens, and ball caps – any paraphernalia he could get his hands on. He grew up to be a gung ho type of soldier who worked and partied – hard. He planned to be a career soldier. But like many soldiers that come home from war, Casey had changed. The first sign was when he showed up at the airport in ruffled Dockers and a tattered old shirt, which wasn’t like Casey. After basic training he walked up the driveway in full dress uniform, buttons so shiny they’d blind a man who looked them straight on. Or at least that’s how his parents remembered it. Now he looked tired, troubled. Troubled for what he saw, or maybe for what he had to do as a necessity of war. Either way he was different. He hugged his parents and the ride to the house was quiet. When they arrived the rest of family was waiting anxiously to welcome him home. Casey had two brothers and a younger sister. He hugged each of them, ate his dinner without a peep, and faded into the back of the house, sitting quietly near the fireplace with a glazed look on his face. This was the first time of many when the glassy eyed Casey would emerge, a hollow shell devoid of emotion and unfazed by his surroundings. He often walked into doors, and would miss steps altogether or would quickly escape into a deep sleep after each zombie episode. The next few weeks were the same. But it was the daily activity of being back home that was the most difficult. The local store, the same one Casey had been to all his life where he picked up toy soldiers and candy as a boy – was now unfamiliar to him. It was loud, brighter and somehow suspicious. When Casey walked the isles it seemed he could hear every movement in the place. The freezer doors slamming, carts rattling along, the crunch of packages seemed to overwhelm Casey. This is when his heart began to race, panic setting in. His chest would tighten as though it were slowing filling up with concrete. The isles became long hallways where the door was a hundred yards away. He’d make it to the floor, someone might come to help, but he considered himself lucky if he was left alone to gather himself and make it to his car where he could take as long he needed to recoup and save face. He didn’t know what to do about the attacks, but it was his business and he wanted to keep it that way. People talked too much in his town, judging you on one thing or another. He was paranoid he might be labeled a freak or a psycho by the locals.
When Sargent Major Chavez called it was official business. Casey was to meet Chavez at base camp in two days; someone was to drive him. Two things had happened. His mother and father had reached out to Sgt. Major Chavez to seek help for their son, whom they were afraid was getting ready to take his own life. The second was Chavez decided he was going to change that. When they arrived, Chavez was waiting in his civilian clothes, his muscular build and perfect buzz cut called out marine from a mile away. He had been in the marines for over 20 years now. He knew what would help Casey the most, what had helped so many soldiers who came back wounded in mind and body: the canine program. Miracle workers who come on all fours, tales wagging and their hearts looking only to honor, obey and love. Most dogs could do a few tricks, be your best friend and comfort you. But these canines went the extra mile. They were special.
Shelly was a one-year-old golden who had that perfect mix of instinct and love that would make her perfect for the canine unit. Her daily tasks were simple; when your master begins to panic, Shelly is to jump on their chest as if slapping them in the face to say ‘snap out of it’. If unsuccessful, plan B – just get them out of the situation. Guide them to a safe place and calm them down. Check out all corners before your master gets to them. Soldiers who suffer from PTSD get wary of corners where bombs or gunfire were a daily occurrence on foot patrols in Iraq. This ritual builds so much trust between soldier and pup that soon they won’t have to look around corners anymore. Instead it’s simply implied that if there were a danger present, their dog would make damn sure they were safe. Shelly and Casey was instantly a match made in heaven. Three months into the program the panic attacks cease, however, the nightmares remain. But every night Shelly curls next to the bed, ready to leap to her masters’ rescue.