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How Highland Canine Connect Helped Steve Chase – a 9/11 Responder

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"It’s just a series of calamities that led to where I am today. But I don't regret any decisions that I made. In other words, I would not have decided not to go to respond to 9/11 had I known what the end results would be."

Hindsight is a wonderful thing. It can be tempting to look back on our lives and revisit momentous decisions, exploring the ‘what if’ scenarios in our heads, and perhaps wondering if things may have turned out differently had we made different choices. Understandably, this frequently occurs if we have been through a devastating or life-altering event.

In the past twenty years, Steve Chase has experienced more than just a single devastating or life-altering event. His traumatic chain of events was set in motion on September 11, 2001.

At that time, Steve was working with the Red Cross. He was home on vacation, but was recalled within minutes of the first plane hitting the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Steve spent the weeks following that tragic day dealing with countless, grief-stricken families, experiencing heartbreaking stories of loss. He was also admitted entry to New York City after the EPA determined the air was ‘safe’ to breathe – a determination that would ultimately prove to be false.

Since 9/11, the physical, mental and emotional toll has unfortunately manifested itself in numerous ways. In the immediate aftermath, Steve was diagnosed with PTSD after returning home – a common diagnosis among 9/11 Responders. Two years later, he suffered a complete Hemorrhagic Stroke, losing his memory and having to re-learn who he was. In the years since, Steve has lost colleagues, suffered continued emotional and physical trauma, and most recently, had the heartbreak of losing his beloved service dog, Boston.

Despite all of this, when you speak with Steve Chase, it’s clear he doesn’t have any regrets. He doesn’t utilize hindsight to pore over the past. Steve’s positive approach to life should shine through as an inspiration to all of us.

At Highland Canine Connect, we first met Steve last year, shortly after he had lost Boston. We became aware of his requirement for a new service dog and wanted to reach out to see if we could help. We were delighted to be able to deliver Mickey, Steve’s new service dog, to him in Virginia.

We had the pleasure of catching up with Steve last week in a telephone interview. He is currently stationed in Boydton, VA, working with the Army Corps of Engineers. In this feature-length interview, we covered many topics, from Steve’s experiences on 9/11, the benefits a service dog can bring, how he is getting on with Mickey, and his perspective on the importance of the work Highland Canine Connect does in local communities.

We thank Steve for his continuing service to our country! His story is truly inspirational, and we hope you enjoy reading the interview.

9/11 - and the aftermath

Coincidentally, our interview took place around the time of the September 11 anniversary. This date will always be poignant for Americans, but it holds a special significance for responders like Steve who had to respond to the atrocities. It seemed an appropriate starting point for our discussion.

Steve, it goes without saying that what you experienced on 9/11 and the days thereafter was so traumatic. It’s harrowing to read your story and think about what you have been through since that date.

You know, it’s just a series of calamities that led up to this, where I am today. I don’t regret any decisions that I made. In other words, I would not have decided not to go to respond to 9/11 had I known what the end results would be. I guess I always knew that it was possible.

It [September 11] was an unprecedented event. It was something that every one of the people, the tens of thousands of people that actually ended up responding to it, every one of them deserves some kind of hero status. Not me. I’m not saying I’m a hero, but after everything we went through, peace would be good.

We relied on the government’s assessment of the danger of the situation and took them at their word, and we came to realize years later that the EPA actually knew the situation was as bad as it was.

Aside from the physical dangers in the aftermath, there are obviously mental and emotional repercussions of seeing such traumatic things and speaking with grieving families. It must be something you never forget.

Right, exactly. Well, you don’t forget unless you have a stroke and it takes out your memory! I laugh at it now. The things the human body does to protect itself are amazing, including the brain, and that’s what my brain did. It shut off all memory from, I guess, when I was a 5-year-old, 10-year-old onwards. I knew how to go to the bathroom, but that was about it.

Tell us a little more about what happened.

So, I had a hemorrhagic stroke. The doctor said it should have killed me. It did not, and I’m grateful for the doctors in New York City, which is where I was when it happened. But one thing that they didn’t know, and they didn’t realize – one of the things during my recovery was that I didn’t even remember that any of the people around me. My natural instinct was to get close to the people that were saying they were my friends, my family and so forth, for protection – because I had no other frame of reference and I just knew that that was the beginning.

At the time, I still worked for the Red Cross and they eventually moved me to Paris Island, the Marine base. That’s when the Marines – actually, a couple of very, very smart Marines – they call them jarheads or what have you, but these guys, they knew their stuff. And they had surmised that I was still blocking memory from something, and got on to the Red Cross about it. The Red Cross got together with them and figured out I was a 9/11 responder and half my team was already down, and it made perfect sense that something in the toxic air had essentially triggered the brain bleed.

steve chase walking with mickey service dog
Steve walks with his current service dog, Mickey, November 2019.

Steve’s first service dog, Buster

In need of assistance in the wake of such traumatic events, Steve acquired a service dog – Buster. Buster was a German Shepherd who had actually dropped out of doing police work at a young age and was retrained as a service dog. Steve and Buster spent a memorable decade together, but the benefits were already apparent to Steve in the early phases of their companionship.

You must have noticed the benefit Buster made to your life in the ten years you spent with him.

Oh, right off the bat. Right off the bat. So this is my theory about all service dogs. Even though they’re really well trained to handle what is wrong with us, they’re also providing an opportunity for us to take care of them, and that was the switch that got me with Buster. I now had responsibility for a very expensive dog, to say the least. I don’t like putting price tags on them, but it’s extremely expensive to train a real service dog, and so it got me to truly care.

I guess that was the first step – because I had no emotions. I had explosions of anger that went unexplained for a while until the Marines figured out it was PTSD reaction. And then it was my doctors that took over in Massachusetts, that followed it all up and tripped my memory back into play, cause the brain would still have the memories. It just wasn’t accessible and they figured it out.

So from your perspective, it was almost a mutually beneficial relationship?

Exactly. It gave me a reason to get out of bed in the morning – even for just a simple walk out to go to the bathroom. It made me redevelop my thinking to caring for someone. So yeah, it began the process and it was very necessary.

And to be honest, I protected him too. Not that he really needed it. Buster was a 147-pound German Shepherd, so he was a big guy and a very strong guy, because he was bred for police service – so he could bring down a 6-foot, 300-pound guy in a matter of seconds. Well, he could if he wanted to, which he never did, thankfully!

But just the responsibility of having a companion. I always looked after him. He always looked after me. Buster probably even intercepted a mugger one night that I didn’t realize at the time – but this guy came flying out from between two houses right at us, and he just turned and gave him a bark that I had never heard Buster give before. That guy stopped dead cold. I don’t know what he was doing, but I didn’t want to find out.

It’s hard to put myself in the shoes of a mugger, but if I saw a 147-pound German Shepherd and it was barking at me, it would probably make me think twice before I went ahead.

Really, it did! You definitely think twice when you have a dog the size of Buster coming after you, or even paying that close of attention to you. I was very grateful to the police department for the training, I’ll tell you that.

Steve’s second service dog, Boston

Sadly, Buster passed away after spending a period of ten years with Steve. In need of another service dog, Steve found a new partner – Boston.

After Buster passed away, you acquired Boston as your next service dog. Tell us a little about how you two first connected.

So Boston was born just two weeks after Buster died, as a matter of fact. Boston was born across the street from a house that I stay in over in Maine. I got to witness the birth and I knew the father and mother. I played with them often because they were great dogs and I got to see him birthing. Then the breeder or owner said to me, “how about you take one of my puppies and make him your new service dog?” – I was so honored and so blessed that they did that.

So me and Boston went to Georgia to do training with an organization down there. They did the training while I volunteered for the campground nearby and that’s how I ended up with a camper and a truck basically.

Boston was an amazing guy. I mean, he was friendly. He was nice, and loving, and he really became my partner for three years…and then he had a heart valve issue, an undetected one. It killed him in my arms, basically. For the first time ever I performed CPR on a dog. He did revive once, but the valve shut again, and that was it.

That’s so tragic – especially as Boston was only three years old, right?

It hurt a lot. In fact, there was a time period there where I was like ‘I don’t need another dog!’. Thankfully, my roommate had a dog too. That was an honest-to-God lifesaver. It was there when Buster died and Boston died, and that night I’ll never forget. I went to bed and my roommate’s dog came in my bed, which was extremely unusual for him. He came in my room and slept with me – because he kind of missed Boston too. They played together when Boston was off duty. It’s just amazing how animals, dogs in particular, are. We don’t give them enough credit.

Steve’s current service dog, Mickey

After the devastating loss of Boston, Steve was starting to think that he didn’t want another service dog. However, after Steve’s friends reached out to Highland Canine Connect and he came to their training facility in North Carolina, he was teamed up with his current service dog – Mickey.

How did you first hear about Highland Canine Connect?

So as I said, I was thinking that I didn’t even want another dog. But with the encouragement of my doctors – thank God for the University of Massachusetts – with their encouragement, my friends actually in North Carolina reached out to Highland Canine Connect. They had heard about Highland first because they lived down there. They had reached out to them and met Erin [Purgason, Founder of Highland Canine Connect], and they told Erin my story. And Erin was like, ‘we might have a dog for him’.

So Highland called me, and I packed up the camper again and took an assignment with the Army Corps of Engineers in Bassett, Virginia. It was about an hour north of Highland’s training facility, and I went down and met Mickey, and we sort of hit it off together wonderfully. And yeah, he’s my buddy. No question.

How does Mickey help you, day-to-day?

Well thankfully, my arms and legs work and my eyes work, but I have nerve damage in both my right leg and my arm as a result from the stroke. I will be holding something and it’ll just fall. It will just go. So Mickey just goes right for it and grabs it and picks it up and hands it back to me, basically.

I also trained him myself for some of the things that I needed him to pay attention to, and not worry about – for example – the fly that lands on his back. That happened this week and it’s the funniest thing. We have these big black flies. You must have them down there where you are too, but they’re huge and they bite and they hurt. They come out just a couple of times during the summer and they’re out right now. He doesn’t want to go out and go to the bathroom because he’s afraid one of them is going to land on his butt. He makes me laugh, and that right there in itself is a great therapy part of PTSD recovery.

What are your recollections of the first time you went to Highland’s facility?

Well, number one, when I first went down to Highland Canine, this was the first time I had heard about this organization, because I am just not from that region. So I took a little while just to walk around their main campus, their main facility. I watched a group of police dogs being trained with their officers by Highland. Then I went into the middle section where the therapy service dogs were being worked on, and watched and listened to a lot of their instructors doing their thing. I had the opportunity to talk to everybody too, which was great. And then I went in and I met Erin.

We talked a lot about what Buster and Boston had done for me, and how lonely I had become. I didn’t even realize it, but how lonely I had been without Boston for the months that ensued between the two points, between when I lost him and when I met with Highland.

Can you give us your overall experience of working with Erin and the team at Highland Canine Connect?

Here’s the thing – Highland Canine Connect is a relatively new organization, but it has a very well-versed staff of people that just know dogs. They know what they can do and just know the range of what a dog can do.

I have dealt with other organizations, or tried to anyway, when Boston first died. It became even more of a hassle than not. But after they heard about my story, it was actually Highland who reached out to me! It made my life a lot easier and I was a lot more relaxed. Given that I’m a PTSD patient, stress is something we desperately try to avoid.

Their work is important. The more we show that dogs can do this and that and the other thing – whatever we’re trying to get them to do – the more valued they become in our society, because they are very important.

If you’re thinking about donating to a non-profit, I can assure you, Highland Canine Connect are the ones to donate to. Their work is incredibly valuable and they do a wonderful job.

Steve & Mickey pose with Erin Purgason, HCC Founder (R) and Sierra Fruth, professional dog trainer and HCC volunteer (L), November 2019.

What are Steve and Mickey currently up to?

Presently, Steve is working at the Army Corps of Engineers, based in Boydton, VA – and Mickey is right by his side! The teams in Boydton and Bassett have worked very closely with Steve to ensure Mickey can be present and safe whilst on site.

How has it been having Mickey by your side at the Army Corps of Engineers?

When I first got here, it was kind of hysterical. Mickey loves swimming a lot, and we’re right on a lake – I actually got yelled at by a ranger because Mickey was off-leash. Mickey is trained to be off-leash. In fact, he’s not supposed to be on-leash in most cases, because if I need help, he needs to be free to go and get the help I need. So the Army Corps of Engineers made the accommodation for me to have him off-leash at certain times and in certain areas, and for his own safety, on-leash in a lot of the public access areas – something I agreed to without hesitation.

Is it typical for there to be a service dog at the Army Corps?

Well, one of the things the Army Corps asked me when I came to this, when they called me and asked me to come up here to John Kerr was, they said, “You have a service dog. Is he good with people?” And I was thinking to myself, of course he is – he’s a service dog! But I guess somebody was here prior to me that claimed a service dog, and the Army Corps was trying to accommodate, but the dog didn’t like other people. And I was like, well then, there’s a problem with that – and the problem is not yours. The problem is the owner’s, either he didn’t train him right, or if he was trained by an agency, they didn’t train him right. He should be working with that agency to fix the problem.

But the teams – both in Bassett and in Boydton – have worked very closely with me on having a service dog here and what he can and cannot do, and they are right there. Because they are a division of the US army, it’s important, because their soldiers are coming home with problems. For a lot of them like me or others who have suffered a traumatic brain injury, service dogs are almost the number one treatment. They have been great.

It’s been quite a journey you’ve been on, Steve – it’s been incredible to hear about it. Thanks again for making the time to speak to us.

Not a problem! Thank you, take care of yourself.

We would once again like to express our thanks and gratitude to Steve Chase for his time in giving us this interview.

Interested in our volunteer opportunities? If you would like to volunteer for Highland Canine Connect, please visit our Volunteer page to discover our latest opportunities!

Our work is only made possible through the generous donations of people like you. It takes over a year for us to provide a fully-trained service dog for our donation program. There are several costs incurred before we deliver our service dogs – from veterinary costs (vaccinations, heartworm, flea/tick treatment) to food, boarding and training equipment. Any donations you can make will be gratefully received, and help us in our efforts to continue our mission of building human-canine connections!

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