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honor's paws of healing

CLYDE, N.C.

Part of the Labrador retriever's training was to sense when the demons of war had invaded Wade Baker's dreams.

"I woke up with Honor standing on my chest, licking my face," the Gulf War veteran once told an interviewer. He tried to push his service dog away, but Honor persisted.

"He was stopping the nightmare for me," Baker said.

And so, when he saw his master lying in the flag-draped casket, Honor pushed through the clutch of weeping family members, reared up and tried to climb in. Unable to comfort Baker, the lanky black dog curled up beneath the coffin.

For Baker, the long nightmare was finally over. Yet Honor was still on duty.

Baker's quarter-century battle with post-traumatic stress disorder ended on Aug. 19, when officers responding to an alleged hostage situation at a little church in the western North Carolina mountains answered his gunfire with a hail of bullets.

It was Baker who'd made the 911 call. As he told a friend, it was time for him to be "put down."

Plagued by memories and delusions, Baker never stopped looking for that "magic pill" that would cure him. For a while, he thought Honor was it.

In the end, even this bundle of unconditional love wasn't enough. Still, Honor was never just Wade Baker's dog — and now there would be others in need of healing.

• • •

The State Center, Iowa, native enlisted in the Army at 18. He was stationed at Fort Riley, Kansas, with his new wife, Diane, before his unit deployed for Operation Desert Storm to liberate Kuwait.

A few days after his return, Diane called his sister, Laura Thomas. Baker was having nightmares about a dead man chasing him.

Baker told his sister that he'd stumbled across an Iraqi soldier and shot him when he reached into his uniform. The man, he later realized, was reaching for photos of his children.

Then there were the burial details. "The dogs would have dug them up overnight," he told her, describing "fighting over an arm with a dog one time."

Thomas told her brother that he needed professional help. But Wade planned to make the Army a career, and feared they would "bounce me out . . . for being a nut job."

Besides, suffering in silence was the "manly" thing to do.

During the mid-1990s, Baker served back-to-back tours in war-torn Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia. He began drinking and flouting authority.

"The anger, the frustration," he said. "I didn't know how to control it."

In November 1998, he "managed to get out with an honorable discharge."

• • •

Back in Iowa, Baker got a job as a corrections officer. But he was becoming more distant from Diane and their two girls.

He fell in love with a jail co-worker, Michelle, who was also married and had two sons. They divorced their spouses and married, eventually having two sets of twins of their own.

By 2006, Baker had lost his jail job. Then in October of that year, fire struck, forcing the family to flee into the night.

"He went downhill really fast after that," Michelle Baker said.

Wade Baker was having false memories. He was convinced he'd killed their neighbor, until he saw him doing yard work. After a chase with police in 2007, Baker landed at a psychiatric unit. A doctor got him into the Iowa City Veterans Affairs hospital.

"The Nightmares + Flashbacks are more severe in intensity + Frequency," he wrote during that period. "I see more clearly and I understand what they want. They need me to kill myself to make it rite."

Baker was diagnosed with PTSD and declared 100 percent disabled.

• • •

On Aug. 23, 2010, at a kennel in Indianola, Iowa, a chocolate Labrador retriever named Bittersweet Formaro whelped a litter of six. Nicole Shumate took them all, plus one from another litter.

As executive director of Paws & Effect, Shumate trains dogs for service with disabled children and combat veterans. She dubbed this group the "military litter" — Anthem, Hero, Justice, Liberty, Merit and Valor.

And, of course, Honor.

When Honor was about halfway through his training, Shumate came to the Bakers' town to speak at a kennel club. Thomas convinced Wade and Michelle to go.

In March 2012, Baker and other veterans reported for training outside Des Moines. When Baker became anxious during a mall outing, Honor climbed into his lap and let out a big yawn — a calming trick he'd learned.

"And that's when I realized: 'Oh. You're training ME,' " Baker said.

Baker said he'd already slept more in those two weeks of training than he had in years.

• • •

The VA doesn't pay to provide service dogs for PTSD sufferers, saying there's no clinical proof they work. Michelle Baker didn't need a study to know that Honor was a godsend.

"It made him an active member in our family again," she said.

In a 2012 interview on Iowa Public Radio, Baker said Honor was pure love — unconditional and unquestioning.

"He doesn't care why I'm agitated," he said.

Yet even though Baker loved Honor, he couldn't shake the conviction that his dependence was proof of his own weakness.

"I've always been looking for that magic pill," he confessed. "I want to wake up tomorrow and I want to be normal."

A year after graduation, Baker sat down with a videographer from Paws & Effect to talk about how Honor had changed his life.

"It's getting better," he said. "And it's not the meds. It's not the therapy. It's just everyday living, with him."

Not long afterward, however, things got bad again.

In December 2013, Baker moved in with a battle buddy so he could get treatment at the VA hospital in Asheville, North Carolina. Michelle and the boys followed in May.

Once again, Baker left the inpatient treatment. Continuing treatment in one-on-one sessions, he wrote in a "trauma statement" about his futile effort to save a comrade whose vehicle rolled over a mine.

The process left Baker agitated and angry. Michelle became so concerned for her and the boys' safety that they moved out this past July.

She and the kids found a small house. Wade and Honor moved into a trailer nearby.

• • •

August 19 was the boys' first day of school. That afternoon, Michelle picked Jack and Kobi up and went to Wade's to get some of their things.

"It's a bad day," he told her, saying he hadn't slept in days. He asked why they couldn't all be together.

Later, as Michelle and the boys sat waiting for the older twins' bus, Baker continued his argument by text. At 3 p.m., he sent a final note.

"Tell the boys I am sorry and that I was weak," he wrote. "I will always be watching them, every touchdown every test every night."

Michelle called the VA's crisis hotline.

At 3:08, Baker posted a note on his Facebook page.

"Well I had a good run but it's time," he wrote. "I love you all."

Armed with a 20-gauge shotgun, he drove to a church and called 911, reporting a man with a gun and adding, "I think he's shot four people already."

Danny Lynn Cagle, a friend, had spotted Baker's Facebook post and immediately phoned. He told Baker his sons needed him; Baker said he was holding them back.

"It's time for me to be put down," he said. "Tell the boys I love 'em."

Then, shotgun raised, the veteran walked toward the officers.

• • •

Police found Honor at Baker's trailer — unharmed.

Typically, if a recipient dies, the service animal is placed with another veteran or child. But Shumate couldn't do that.

"He's the last connection that the boys have with their father," she said.

"Honor gave the boys their dad for more years," Michelle Baker said, weeping.

These days, Honor is more pet than service dog. But he still has special powers.

If one of the boys becomes emotional, their mother said, Honor will rear up and gently press his front paws into his chest. "And they just melt and embrace him."

She kept some of her husband's ashes, which he'd wanted scattered at favorite waterfalls and other spots they'd visited. When the boys are ready, she plans to take them to fulfill his wishes.

And when they do, it will be with Honor.

honor's paws of healing 11/24/15 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 24, 2015 6:56pm]
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