Editor’s Note: Jason Rowell participated in the November, 2015 performance by WWP / WGI workshop participants at The Kennedy Center in DC. As he says below, sharing his poetry from the stage was the least of the amazing things that happened to him. Here’s his story:
On a night in November of 2015, I stepped onto the Millennium Stage at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC to read a poem I had composed. The poem was about why I had a service dog and what she meant to me. Through writing it, I had found my voice and a courage and strength I did not know that I had.
As I stepped onto the stage, I thought to myself, “In the last 24 hours, this is not even the most amazing thing I have done. How crazy is that!”
The day before, I found myself on the plane to Washington. My thoughts drifted to how far I had come since joining the Wounded Warrior Project. In two short years I had gone from hardly leaving the house, due to my severe PTSD, to being on the way to share my poetry.
Nuzzled against my thigh on that flight was Harley, my 3-½ year old service dog, a mix of golden doodle and labradoodle. As she had for the past two years, she provided a calming relief to me. A small smile framed my face as I slowly realized that I was not nervous about being on the flight, but rather I was nervous about sharing a poem that I had penned in the days after Harley and I were partnered up as a service dog team.
In carefully chosen words, I had successfully explained how a service dog helps someone deal with the invisible wounds of PTSD. The question now remained, would I be able to actually share something so personal, so very publicly? I hoped I could, but was not really sure the world was ready to hear what I had written.
The morning of our reading, six past attendees from the Wounded Warrior / Writers Guild Initiative workshops met for breakfast. One mom, one spouse and four veterans joined Chris Albers from the Guild. He was responsible for getting us to the Kennedy Center on time, and would be our Master of Ceremonies.
Chris encouraged us to spend the day seeing see as much of DC as possible — while also making sure we were rested up for that’s night’s presentation. I decided that I would take Harley around and see the various memorials of Washington DC. Unbeknownst to me, this would become an adventure of a lifetime.
Harley and I saw all of the memorials, but I saved the Marine Corps War Memorial, better known as the Iwo Jima War Memorial, for last. On our way, we needed to see the White House. Even though Harley is a service dog, and can go everywhere I can go, I did not feel comfortable taking her into the “People’s House.” However, I still wanted a picture of her posing outside of the gate in front of the White House.
Sounds easy enough. The White House sits on a square, and there’s sidewalk all around it. Harley and I walked repeatedly around the outside wall. I thought that eventually Harley and I would arrive at the front. However, we never found it. In fact, I was walking past the road, thinking it was part of a parking lot. Frustrated, I repeatedly asked the police officers at various checkpoints where the front was, and I was provided directions. No matter, I never could find it.
Finally, a plain-clothes Secret Service Agent stopped me and asked what I was doing. I explained why I was in Washington DC, and why I was walking around The White House. He asked if I had identification, and I provided him with my retired military ID card and my California Drivers License. He returned some time later, and asked if I would be interested in going on a quick tour of The White House. I said sure, as long as I was shown where the front was for Harley’s picture. He laughed.
He showed me around The White House, and apologized for not being able to relay all the interesting historical facts that the tour guides provide, despite the fact that he had heard them all many times before. In an effort to make up for it, he asked if I had had lunch yet. Who says no to that? Not me. The Cobb Salad I had was by far the best salad I have ever had, and when it was all said and done, Harley had her picture in front of The White House.
And so, as I walked to the stage of the Kennedy Center, I realized that the reading I was about to give would not be the most spectacular part of my day. My wife, Jen, watched me read from our home, via live stream. She could see how emotional I became while reciting. (Editor’s note: You can watch that stream here.)
As I walked off the stage fifteen minutes later, all I could help but think about was hopefully someone was touched by the words I had penned the first time Harley came into my life.
The trip had one more startling, and one more amazing moment in store for me.
The next day, we said our goodbyes and got ready for the flight home. A TSA agent greeted Harley and me when we got to the airport. We followed her to the ticket counter, and she provided the airline my ID, and collected our tickets. While waiting for our tickets, another passenger came over and started talking to me about Harley.
As usual, the assumption is I am training Harley for someone else, as my “injury” is not physical and not apparent. Somehow people don’t assume that I need a service dog. I have just grown to accept this is how it is going to be. When I revealed that I had Harley due to PTSD from serving in the military, their response was to spit on me. Before I could react, the agent who was at the counter, placed this person into custody, and another agent came over to take me to the security line. She apologized repeatedly, and I told her it was fine.
I was not really surprised that this had happened, based upon comments the person had made before. Looking back, I should not have stated anything about my military service, as there were more than enough hints provided in the conversation to let me know that I should not have said anything. (Something I will be mindful of in the future.)
We rode an escalator down to the security line, and the TSA agent remarked how at ease Harley was as she rode it down. I laughed, and told her that she does not mind riding it, but does not like getting off of it. Sure enough, when it came time debark, she jumped off just as the last step disappeared into the machine.
As we arrived at the check-in desk, we realized that I did not have my boarding pass. The time it took to straighten that out meant that I wouldn’t have enough time to let Harley relieve herself before her flight. The TSA agent arranged for someone to meet us in when we had to change planes in Phoenix.
Sure enough, the agent waiting for us in Phoenix took us to an area for Harley to do her thing. When we got back into the airport, we had to go through the whole security line, minus the x-ray machine device.
The line was moving incredibly slowly, and as a result Harley became a focal point for people’s attention. I do not mind that, even though the TSA agent made sure to point out Harley was in fact working and that you are not suppose to distract a working service dog. The reality is, Harley is knows me very well, and she knows when to keep people back and will turn down being petted, even if I say it is okay. As a result, I always say yes, and Harley determines if being greeted is something that should or should not be done.
As the line picked up, Harley began pawing at me with her left paw. This sign for “seizure alert” is something that she learned long before we were partnered up. It puzzled me at first, and I ignored it. She repeated it. I learned long ago not to ignore her, and I mentioned it to the TSA agent with me. She answered that maybe Harley was picking it up from another passenger.
I tapped the lady in front of me on the shoulder, and told her about Harley. She was impressed, and when I told her about Harley giving me a seizure alert, she admitted that she has seizures. The people that she was traveling with began to go through her travel bag, looking for her medications. Meanwhile, a TSA agent came over with a wheelchair. The woman was barely in the chair when she began seizing. Her companions told me how amazing Harley was as they departed with their friend. I do not know what became of the woman, and Harley and I boarded our plane for Sacramento.
My wife Jen picked me up at the airport. I told her about the reading, about how I felt I’d done fine. Right as we pulled into the garage, she turned and looked at me. “Jason, after looking at your Facebook posts, I get the hint that your trip out there to DC was incredibly interesting, right?” “And never a dull moment,” I replied with a slight twinkle in my eye.