Don Hicks

A Service Dog for a Purple Heart Veteran

A new bride eases out of bed quietly and creeps around to the end of the bed where she takes her husband’s toe in her hand and shakes it. It is an early morning in 1970 and Renee Hicks is carefully waking her husband Don who is having a nightmare, again.

Don Hicks in Vietnam 1969

The life expectancy of a radio telephone operator (RTO) in the Vietnam War ranged between five to six seconds all the way up to thirty seconds, depending on the source reporting the statistics. The primary responsibility of a radio operator was to make sure those on the front lines can talk to headquarters. An RTO was responsible for reporting conflicts or firefights to headquarters which would in turn provide support to the units in conflict. Where the commanders went, the RTOs were in front of them. The Viet Cong knew what it meant to take out a guy with a ten-foot antenna sticking out of his back – take out the radio operator and you avoid dealing with air support. Additionally, it was well known that a radio operator’s place in the marching order was with the officer-in-charge — two high-priority targets in one spot. Don added “I was always in front of the Captain – if I was shot, he had a chance”.

Don Hicks, barely 20 years old, went to Vietnam in January 1969 and was a radio operator most of his tour which ended in February 1970. He served with Americal Division, 196th Infantry Brigade (“Chargers”), Company B in Chu Lai. Don recalls that “Vietnam smelled so bad – I can still smell it”.  Hanging on the wall in his living room in Franklin, KY is a shadow box of medals and ribbons from his tour in Vietnam which includes three purple hearts.

Don recalls the flight home from Vietnam on a commercial airplane as being tense and quiet until the announcement was made that they were leaving SAM (surface-air missile) range then everyone relaxed for the rest of the trip to Guam.  On the flight from Guam to Seattle, Don noticed the plane’s motion felt odd – as if it was going backward before it went forward.  Their plane had lost an engine.  Soldiers wearing their fatigues on the way home from Vietnam looked down at the ocean thinking “are you serious – we just got out of Vietnam alive”.  The pilot assured them he could fly the plane with only one engine, and they had two.  Upon arrival in Seattle, the soldiers were advised to wear their uniforms on their continuing flights, but to take off their uniforms as soon as they got home. The officer in charge explained that Americans were hostile to returning troops and were blaming them for the war.  Don explains “We were confused, we didn’t understand how that could be possible”.   While standing with a small group of fellow soldiers waiting for a connecting flight, Don recalls that they were approached by a woman holding a toddler by the hand.  The woman asked them “Are you going to Vietnam or coming home?”  They responded that they were coming home.  The woman spat at their feet and called them baby killers.   

When Don left for Vietnam, he left his sweetheart Renee behind.  When he returned home in February 1970, he proposed to Renee and they will celebrate their 50th anniversary in May. In the summer of 1970, he was visiting his grandmother in his hometown in Missouri with Renee. Don recalls that Renee looked beautiful with her hair done “just so”.  Don, Renee and Don’s older cousin Charlie were walking around waiting to go to church when a series of explosions (fireworks) erupted. Renee recalls “I will never forget suddenly being face down in the sandy dirt with Charlie and Don on top of me. So much for looking beautiful”.  Don recalls that after they got up off the ground his cousin Charlie told him: “Don, you aren’t in Vietnam!”

Don referred to the symptoms he experienced upon returning home from Vietnam as “nightmares” or “spells”.  He didn’t know about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  PTSD can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as war/combat, a serious accident, a terrorist act, rape or other violent assault.  PTSD has been known by many names in the past, such as “shell shock” during the years of World War I and “combat fatigue” after World War II. Combat veterans with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience that last long after the traumatic event has ended. They may relive the event through flashbacks or nightmares; they may feel sadness, fear or anger; and they may feel detached or estranged from other people. People with PTSD may avoid situations or people that remind them of the traumatic event, and they may have strong negative reactions to something as ordinary as a loud noise or an accidental touch.

Don’s wife Renee recalls that Don’s first year home was “bad, very bad”.  She’d be awakened at night by his nightmares and often would see her sleeping husband sitting up, hunched over in bed talking into his hand reliving a scene from being on the front lines in Vietnam. Don had taught her to never reach out and touch him to wake him up.  He would likely instinctively react to her touch violently.   Instead, she needed to wake him the way fellow soldiers did during the war – by shaking his toe from the foot of the bed.  Don relates “I’d often wake up, see Renee, go back to sleep and return to my dream, but this time Renee would be in that foxhole with me.”

Don says his nightmares continued through the years and they continue to this day.  He says, “I have medication now and my nightmares are not as frequent; on average they are 2 – 3 times per week”.  During the day, he has anxiety and experiences involuntary movements, which is how his PTSD manifests during his waking hours.  Don retired from GM in Bowling Green in 2001.  While he was working, he had less time to think about things – his mind was busier and engaged. Since retirement, he has more time to his thoughts, remembering things that are impossible to forget, and his PTSD symptoms have intensified.  His wife shares “I’m a night owl so Don usually goes to bed before I do. Some evenings he will come get me and ask if I will come be with him because he isn’t having a good night”.  Don adds “I will probably have a couple of bad nights after talking to you today about all of this”.

In 2003, a representative with the DAV was in Franklin helping Veterans with anything they may need assistance with. This was the first time Don accessed any type of medical assistance or benefits from the VA.  He was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and was awarded benefits related to his service in Vietnam.  Up until that time, he had suffered with symptoms without a diagnosis or treatment.  Recently, with his current symptoms, his medical practitioner recommended that having a service dog would be of great benefit to him.  The VA can help provide a service dog for him, but it will take years due to the high volume of Veterans in need of this type of assistance.  Don had dismissed the possibility of having a service dog as unlikely. “I’d probably die waiting for it to happen”.

Don is a member of the Simpson County Honor Guard and Vietnam War Veterans of Simpson County.  Don is typically the bugler during Honor Guard ceremonies. While holding his bugle, the physical manifestations of his PTSD are under control. Anyone who doesn’t know him well wouldn’t suspect that he is suffering.  Increasingly, he is having difficulty being out in public. In late November, he was with the Honor Guard at the dedication of the Veteran Plaza at the Post Office when he had an episode of instability and nearly fell to the ground. Veteran Don Hicks, age 71, needs the assistance and assurance that a trusted, well-trained service dog could provide to him. 

Don and Luna

Abbi’s Barkery is a local non-profit organization that was founded by 9-year-old Abigail Broadway and her mother Robin in 2016.  Their mission when Abbi’s Barkery was established was to raise funds to purchase a service dog for Abbi who has epilepsy.  Abbi baked homemade dog treats and sold them at the Franklin-Simpson Farmers’ Market, and later opened a store on the Square.  Abbi, now 12 years old, was successful in raising funds for her service dog and desires to help others in need of service dogs. The Barkery closed its bricks and mortar store at the end of 2019, but Abbi’s mission is alive and growing. Paws in Service is a natural progression for Abbi’s Barkery.  Abbi’s renewed mission is to raise funds to train local shelter dogs to be service dogs for disabled Veterans and children with seizure disorders. Abbi’s new initiative, Paws in Service, wants to help Veteran Don Hicks get his service dog. Purchasing and training a service dog can be expensive and out of reach for most individuals. On average the cost is between $10,000 – $25,000 to purchase an already trained service dog.  Paws in Service has a plan in place to train a shelter dog to be a service dog for Don.  $6,000 is the immediate fundraising goal.  Community support and financial donations are both needed and greatly appreciated – not just for this first project, but for future teams of shelter dogs and individuals whose lives can be improved by having a service dog.

Luna will be trained as Don’s service dog

Don is already a step ahead toward having his service dog.  Luna has been adopted from a local municipal shelter and is now living with Don and Renee Hicks.  Don and Luna have been bonding and working on basic obedience training.  Luna’s formal training as a service dog will begin as soon as the first installment payment is made to the trainer at no cost to this very deserving Veteran.

Luna’s life has already been saved through adoption.  Luna will, in turn, be providing life enhancing assistance to her new owner.  Saving lives of shelter dogs and the humans they will be trained to serve is what Paws In Service is all about.

Author: Jennifer Sturm

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