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Firefighter war veteran worried about service dog’s exposure to fire station

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Firefighter and U.S. Marine veteran Kevin Leverence is at battle again, this time over his service dog, America.

Leverence, who served in Iraq 2004-2005, was diagnosed with PTSD shortly after joining the Aurora, IL, Firefighter Local 99 in 2010.  He was given the opportunity to obtain a service dog last year. Aurora Fire Chief John Lehman was in agreement if it meant a better quality of life and better job performance for Leverence, who had been having some issues at work, according to the Chicago Tribune article.

The dog, Leverence points out, is “an adaptive medical device” and must be treated as such, in response to Lehman’s demand that Leverence introduce America to the Fire community in a 3-day tour – encompassing all three shifts in nine fire stations, and expose her to a few hundred employees.

Kevin Leverence and his yellow labrador retriever, America, helps Kevin deal with his PTSD he is now suffering from serving in Iraq. Image credit: Gary Middendorf, The Beacon-News
Kevin Leverence and his yellow labrador retriever, America, helps Kevin deal with his PTSD he is now suffering from serving in Iraq. Image credit: Gary Middendorf, The Beacon-News

According to the Chicago Tribune, Leverence felt that “Parading her around to show co-workers is below the dignity of a service animal and contributes to the organization-wide perception that this animal is a fire station pet or mascot,” he wrote in a recent complaint filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

The report says that Leverence feels he and America still have “a very young relationship” and overtaxing it and her abilities would “compromise that relationship.”

His concerns received the support of Gloria Gilbert Stoga, his and America’s trainer, and the president and founder of Puppies Behind Bars, a program that helps veterans struggling with PTSD and traumatic brain injuries to obtain and train service dogs.

Stoga wrote a letter to Leverence, stating that the tour laid out by Lehman, “is going to be overwhelming for (America) and for you,” and that the dog “will pick up on your stress and will not really have time to decompress before she is led into another presentation.”

Lehman insisted, his motivation for having the tour is to introduce others to the concept, and to the dog, who is a resident of the firehouse, alongside Leverence; “it’s an operational need for personnel to be acquainted with the service dog that has been and will be living among us.”

According to spokesman Dan Ferrelli, via e-mail, “the fact that Leverence could be called to work in any of the nine firehouses—the purpose of the tour would be to better acclimate the dog, according to what was agreed upon before Leverence got the dog back on January 4.

It was “only after Mr. Leverence brought the service dog to the workplace,” the statement continued, that the firefighter expressed concerns about the schedule for acclimating the dog. Until then, the agreement was that Leverence would allow this acclimation to occur.

America, Kevin Leverence's service dog. Image credit: Gary Middendorf, The Beacon-News
America, Kevin Leverence’s service dog. Image credit: Gary Middendorf, The Beacon-News

Leverence was summoned to appear last Thursday before a board investigating the situation, but the meeting was postponed, due to scheduling conflicts.

The city is following procedures and simply wants to “move the dog forward” in the acclimation process.

Leverence fears that the process will interfere with America’s training and limit her effectiveness in his daily living.

Leverence says America has “given me security, an extra set of eyes.” His symptoms have been reduced by her presence, keeping him focused, waking him at night by pulling off his blanket if he is going into night terrors, turning on the light and licking his face.

Leverence told the Chicago Tribune that when he returned from Iraq he was not aware he came home with PTSD and traumatic brain injury.

It is not abnormal for our servicemen to deny or not notice symptoms of PTSD including irritation, anxiety, sleeplessness, depression, flashbacks, isolation, nightmares, and thoughts of suicide.

America is a great support for Leverence as he heals from the long term effects of his active war time service.

The process has been stressful for him and his family. He said, “I just want this all to get resolved.”

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