By Curt Peterson, Standard Correspondent
KILLINGTON — Santos Ramos “is a sweetheart,” his wife Jane Ramos wrote, “and the whole town loves him.” Now the U.S. Navy veteran has a new friend – a service dog named Prairie, who loves him too.
Everyone who came to the Killington Transfer Station last Sunday morning had a smile and some banter for Ramos, and there’s no better place to meet everybody in town. The Transfer Station is on River Road, directly across from the Sherburne Memorial Library where Jane Ramos is librarian.
“You see how I’m smiling and happy with everybody who comes here, right?” says Ramos. “But I’m laughing on the outside, and crying on the inside.”
Ramos suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder – PTSD – a malady resulting from serving six years on the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Nimitz, from 1982-1988. He worked on what’s called an “ABE” team – those responsible for using a catapult to launch planes, and arresting gear to catch landing planes so they didn’t overrun the deck and fall into the sea. It was a very stressful and dangerous experience.
His tour on the Nimitz took him to crisis-ridden Algiers and Lebanon, earning him the Naval Expeditionary Medal and eligibility for burial in Arlington Cemetery.
“No one comes back from the military without being changed,” Ramos says. “And I was no exception.”
Since his discharge he has suffered nightmares, anxiety and panic attacks, depression, antisocial behavior and paranoia.
Then, on Sept.11, 2001, Ramos watched from his apartment window in New York City as the Twin Towers crumbled.
“Most people suffering from PTSD are in denial,” Ramos says. “Twentytwo veterans commit suicide every day. I’ve been married several times, and the wives just couldn’t take the stress of living with my PTSD.”
It wasn’t until 1995 that a private physician on Staten Island diagnosed Ramos’ sickness, but he was unable to get treatment or medication until 2015 after he moved to Vermont and sought help from the White River Veterans Association Hospital.
Treatment and medication has helped Ramos – he loves his job and the friends he has made in Killington. But Prairie, his yellow Labrador service dog, is the light of his life.
Prairie was bred at Southeastern Guide Dogs (SGD), a nonprofit service dog provider in Palmetto, Florida, near Sarasota. Ramos heard about the benefits these trained dogs can have for PTSD sufferers, and he applied. Prairie arrived just two weeks ago. She is 19 months old.
As soon as they can leave their mothers, the SGD puppies are sent to volunteer foster families who raise them until they’re old enough to be trained as service dogs. The organization breeds Labradors, golden retrievers and Labrador-Golden hybrids called “Goldadors.” Once the veteran is approved for receiving a service dog, the wait for “the appropriate animal” can be from 6 months to a year.
SGD’s motto is, “Serving
those who cannot see and those who have seen too much.”
Ramos traveled to Florida for a 12-day, no-cost, one-on-one training program with Prairie as SGD’s 33-acre campus. A trainer will visit Ramos and Prairie after 90 days, then every six months to check on how their relationship is working and to tidy up any training issues. SGD’s dogs and services for vets are funded entirely by donations.
Once a veteran receives their service dog, the veteran is responsible for care and feeding of the animal. Southeastern Guide Dogs estimates the annual cost at $900 – $1,200.
Prairie wears a special vest identifying her as a service dog. When she has it on, Ramos says, it triggers her service dog training.
Jane Ramos said one of the challenges is educating people that Prairie has to be 100-percent bonded with and focused on Santos as her handler, and that having well-meaning people fussing over her or playing with her is counter-productive.
He said Prairie can sense when a wave of sadness is overcoming him or he’s having a bad dream, and she climbs up and puts her front paws on either side of his head, hugging him and licking him.
She protects him when she senses he feels anxious about someone getting close to him, which he said happens often. He says “block” and Prairie stands sideways between Ramos and the other person, politely maintaining a comfortable buffer zone for him.
Ramos said Prairie is already making a difference in his life.
“I pour my love into her and it makes me happy,” he said, adding that feeling really happy is a fairly new sensation for him.
This article first appeared in the January 4, 2018 edition of the Vermont Standard.