[dropcap type=”1″]R[/dropcap]ichard Powell has experienced quite a lot in his young life.
Powell joined the military when he was 17 years old while still attending high school in Ohio. He said he served in the United States Army from October 22, 2008 to March 22, 2013.
[quote_center]He was 20 years old when he came to Iraq as a forward observer in an infantry platoon.[/quote_center]
He was 20 years old when he came to Iraq as a forward observer in an infantry platoon. That means it was his job to draw out insurgents from their posts.
“When they (his platoon) got fired upon, it was my job to find out where the fire was coming from and use whatever access I had available to stop them from shooting at us,” Powell said. If available, it was also his responsibility to let their air support know the location of insurgents so they could be eliminated.
Powell recalled times when he was part of security escorts to city council meeting in Iraq. He explained that insurgents would attempt to assassinate city council members and it was his platoon’s duty to protect them.
He remembered that simply walking into a market in Iraq was highly intense as there was no way to know who was good or bad. Other times, children were paid by the insurgents to throw grenades at the U.S. soldiers.
Powell did not want to dwell on the bad times of war, though. He preferred to talk about the better days when he was able to help hand out food and candy to the locals.
[pull_quote_center]“All the other kids were really cool. We would give them candy and soccer balls,” Powell said.[/pull_quote_center]
He said the children also would let the soldiers know if they believed an IED was planted on the side of the road. “The Iraqi kids were amazing,” Powell said.
From June 2010 to July 2011, Powell was involved with combat missions in the Diyala Province in Iraq.
“For nine months, we did combat missions and for the last four months, we were stationed at check points,” Powell said. He explained that every car that came through the check point would be inspected by Iraqi and Kurdish forces. Powell’s platoon was on guard at these check points in the event that a dire situation would arise. It was at this time, where high stress and angst was commonplace, that a bit of comfort (and perhaps a tiny feeling of being back home) was found – and it came from man’s best friend.
“There were a lot of dogs around us,” said Powell. Powell had even assisted one of the dogs when she gave birth to a litter of puppies. The Iraqi Army told his platoon to get rid of the dogs, by whatever means, because they felt the dogs were unsanitary. Powell understood what “means” they were referring to, but he and his platoon decided to attempt to save the dogs. In secret, he and his platoon drove three miles away from the check point and let the dogs go.
Eight hours later, when Powell was on guard duty, the dogs had found their way back.
“I see a line of all the dogs – there was the momma dog, all the puppies, and the daddy dog.” From that day on, the soldiers not only looked out for their own safety, but also defended the dogs – the little piece of comfort they had amidst the chaos.
The dogs were given names like, “Cupcake,” “Doughnut” and “Cookie.” Cookie (who was later named “Cosmo”) took a special liking to Powell. Powell said he would often find Cosmo lying on his cot in his platoon’s tent. “If we were getting shot at and I had to run out, every time I came back in he would still be laying on my cot,” said Powell.
Cosmo, an American Bulldog and Staffordshire Bull Terrier mix, remained a constant in Powell’s life during the war, providing a sense of calmness throughout difficult times. Some of those difficult times happened when Powell did a 10-month stint in Iraq from September through July.
One by one, he watched his friends go on leave as he stayed behind on the battlefront.
There was also a sense of guilt among each member of the platoon when they would go home on leave. Powell explained where the feeling comes from – it’s the dread and worry that they wouldn’t be there to help if something went wrong. In other words, if a member of the platoon was hurt or killed in action while one soldier was away on leave, that soldier would feel responsible – that the tragedy could have been prevented if he hadn’t been away.
Powell said the men in his platoon helped one another get through the hardest of times. “The main thing that helped you through it is having each other, your ‘battle brothers’,” said Powell.
[dropcap type=”1″]W[/dropcap]hen it came time to leave Iraq, Powell didn’t want to leave Cosmo behind. [pull_quote_right]“I thought it would be totally out of the question, you know, to bring a dog back from Iraq.”[/pull_quote_right] Still, he inquired with a customs agent. He asked, “I know this isn’t really realistic, but what happens if I want to bring this dog back with me?”
Powell learned that he, in fact, could bring Cosmo with him, but it wasn’t a simple or inexpensive process. He would have to pay for Cosmo to be quarantined in Dallas, Texas, for six months. Powell gladly made the arrangements.
Upon leaving Iraq, Powell was to be stationed in Hawaii, knowing that he would later be reunited with his canine friend. Even so, there was still a lot of anxiety.
“When you’re going home, you’re thinking that something is going to happen,” Powell explained. “You made it this far, there is no way you’re going to make it all the way home. That was a really cool feeling when I landed in Hawaii at the Air Force Base.” [pull_quote_center]I came out of the plane and kissed the ground. It was awesome.”[/pull_quote_center]
Cosmo later joined Powell in Hawaii, but not before he spent an additional six months in quarantine because of Hawaii law. With the help of the Wounded Warrior Project, Cosmo was sent back to Texas to be trained as a service and emotional-support dog. He had completed service training just before Powell finished his time with the Army.
Cosmo is a calming presence again for Powell, who was diagnosed with PTSD and suffered traumatic brain injury during the war.
“We’ve just been through everything together. He’s really good for me. Just (helping me) through the struggles of being out of the Army and not getting paid for four to five months … homelessness … everything … he’s been through it with me, ” Powell said. “He has a real personality. I’ve never met a dog with personality like his.”
Upon finishing his career with the Army, Powell went back to the mainland and once again reunited with Cosmo. But that’s not the only friend he reunited with.
[dropcap type=”1″]D[/dropcap]uring his deployment to Iraq, strangers back home in the United States lent their support by sending care packages or chatting with soldiers through Camfrog Chat service. One couple who often spoke to Powell through video chat were Larry and Miri Carew from Lake Havasu City. The Carews became long-distance pals with Powell through their chats, and after the Carews shared photos of Lake Havasu City, Powell vowed that he would move there one day.
“He (Larry) told me about this place, and I told him ‘Hey man, I’m going to live there some day.’ And nobody believed it, ” Powell said.
Powell looked up information on Lake Havasu and thought, “Wow, my anxiety would go down a lot.” He believed if he moved to Lake Havasu City, the town’s constant sunny weather would keep him out of depression and would be the perfect place to treat his PTSD.
Larry flew to Dayton, Ohio, to meet Powell and the two drove back to Lake Havasu City in Powell’s truck with Cosmo. They arrived on Halloween Day in 2013. Powell wasn’t sure if Havasu was the right place for him after all, given all the activity that night, but his fears were soon calmed with the help of the Carews and by Havasu’s natural surroundings.
Instead of taking strong medications for his PTSD, Powell has found a balance by enjoying nature and attending yoga.
“I just used the lake, mountains, palm trees, the sun – I used that to be okay, “said Powell.
That wasn’t all, reassurance also came when Powell landed a volunteer position with the Western Arizona Humane Society. “That saved me,” Powell said. The team he worked with became his family and the position quickly turned into a paid assistant medical tech position at the medical intake facility, where he often assists a doctor and a vet technician with spaying and neutering pets.
“It makes me focus because you can’t mess up when you’re putting a dog under for surgery,” Powell said.
Patty Gillmore, Executive Director of the Western Arizona Humane Society, recognized Powell’s potential. “When he first started with us, I brought him on board to be a kennel tech, not really knowing that he would be an excellent medical tech,“ said Gillmore, who Powell respectfully calls “mom.”
[pull_quote_center]“He has just been an amazing asset to the Western Arizona Humane Society. He knows how to think very quickly on his feet. He is doing an outstanding job.”[/pull_quote_center]
Gillmore has observed that animals are an amazing resource for Powell because they keep him calm and lessen his anxiety. “It seems that animals do an amazing thing for Richard,“ Gillmore said.
“I know he comes from a background with the military, seeing things that humans don’t want to see, but it seems like he has transferred all of that pain and anguish into helping animals – which is amazing that he has the strength to do that.”
Gillmore added, “We’re just thrilled that we have been able to wrap our arms around him and bring him into our organization. He thinks that he is blessed by being with us, but we are very blessed by having him.”
Powell received continued support from Wounded Warrior Project , who he says have taken him under their wing. “They’re the ones who helped me get to where I’m at today,” Powell said.
The group helps veteran soldiers in a number of ways. They were a huge resource to Powell not only by assisting in the process to have Cosmo trained as a service dog. They also connected him with a benefits liaison, which helped him understand what benefits were available through the Veteran’s Affairs Office.
The Army veteran said he has learned a great deal about life during his time in Iraq. “You don’t really realize the value of things until they’re taken away from you,” said Powell.
“You never know the value of a moment until it’s a memory. I appreciate (my time in) Iraq. I learned a lot and it was really humbling. I learned to appreciate everything; sunny skies…the way the air smells. You really learn to value life and everything involved with it; the good days, the bad days.”
[dropcap type=”1″]P[/dropcap]owell also shared that he has realized the value in relationships with friends and to not take even the smallest things for granted, down to the simple pleasure of enjoying a cheeseburger, which he remembers being willing to pay $100 for while he was serving in Iraq.
Powell shared another piece of advice after serving in the armed forces. “Do the right thing always, and you’ll always be okay,” he said.
While Powell has Cosmo and his new family at the Humane Society, he often misses friends that were lost during battle and he wears two black and titanium bracelets, one on each wrist, that are engraved with the names of friends who had been killed in action while they fought in Afghanistan.
[pull_quote_center]“I wear their memorial bracelets every day. I haven’t taken them off since 2012. It’s like you take that person wherever you go, so I never take them off. It helps me make good decisions … because I feel like I am carrying them throughout this.”[/pull_quote_center]