June 30, 2023

My Service Dog Gave Me the Freedom to Celebrate What We Fought For

The year I turned seven stands out as my most memorable childhood birthday. I was afflicted with chickenpox—a hard thing to forget. I remember running around outside my grandparents’ house on the Patuxent River in an oversized T-shirt with sparklers while my dad set off fireworks.

I was born on the Fourth of July. So was my grandfather. My family told me growing up that the celebrations and fireworks displays all over town were meant for me. (For a time, I actually believed them.)

Each year on my birthday, my dad, grandfather, and I would take the canoe out on the river to collect spoils from the crab traps we’d set. We’d end up with a couple of bushels, enough for the extended family. We spread newspapers on the picnic tables out back and dug in. 

If memory serves me, the fireworks we set off later in the evening came from across the border in West Virginia, purchased during fall hunting trips and stockpiled for my birthday. I mean for Independence Day. My family had a fascination with explosions which, honestly, seems prescient now that I look back on it.

I never gave much thought to what the Fourth of July really signified until I became an adult, joined the Marine Corps, and went to war, where I experienced multiple near-misses from rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices in Iraq and Afghanistan. (A little different from backyard fireworks, but you get the idea.)

I turned 27 and 29 in combat zones, where daily life was so busy that birthdays and holidays barely registered. There may have been a special dinner in the chow hall to commemorate American Independence, but there was no time to reflect or celebrate. 

For years afterward, celebrating felt hard. Especially when I thought of my fellow Marines who gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan or the ones who died by suicide after coming home. The truth is, for years, I couldn’t enjoy the freedoms my generation and so many others fought and died for. 

In many ways, it didn’t feel right to do what they could no longer do. But deeper than that, my own “invisible wounds”—post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries—had turned me sullen and angry. Anxiety, nightmares, and hypervigilance ruled my life. 

Until along came a service dog named Axel, who helped me find freedom and, eventually, celebrate it. 

I’ll spend my birthday this year at a qualifying event at The Federal Club, a golf course in Glen Allen, Virginia, that hosts Leashes of Valor’s flagship fundraiser, The Valor Cup, each fall. The Valor Cup provides golfing opportunities for wounded and disabled veterans and also raises vital funds to help us provide service dogs at no cost to wounded and disabled veterans. This is what drives me now—to help provide tools to other veterans so they too can enjoy the freedoms they fought for.

I imagine I’ll also think back on that year I celebrated despite having chickenpox. Of family and feasts and fireworks and how lucky I am—how lucky we all are—to have the opportunity in the first place.

Jason Haag is a retired Marine Corps captain and founder and CEO of Leashes of Valor.