PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- When several veterans with their service dogs got the boot from a Jacksonville Beach surf shop, a post on a veteran's angry blog led to an apology and a new supporter.
Marine Corps Captain Jason Haag now goes everywhere with his new best friend, his dog Axel. He received the dog from an organization called k9sforwarriors.org based in Ponte Vedra Beach. The group has matched 37 wounded warriors with trained dogs. Veterans say the dogs have turned their lives around. Haag was deployed several times to Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003 to 2010, suffered traumatic brain injury, and he suffers from post traumatic stress disorder. He is now waiting for his medical discharge from the Marines.
"I couldn't come out of my basement for 30 days at a time. Being with Axel, having the dog and what k9's did for me got me back in the public to be able to enjoy myself again," said Haag.
While training with his new dog recently, Haag, two other vets and their trainer visited the Surf and Skate Shop at Jacksonville Beach. Their four dogs were with them. The store owner, Gary Messer, asked the veterans and dogs to leave, saying they were a disruption. The veterans said they tried to explain the dogs were service animals but got nowhere. They quickly left.
Haag was devastated. "He could have derailed my whole life, and turned me back to square one." Haag soon wrote an angry post about his experience on his blog he calls USMCrazy. He says it got 10,000 hits and readers expressed their anger at the business."We got a lot of phone calls and started to realize they were vets and there was more going on here than I realized as a store owner," said Messer. Messer says he did not realize the men were veterans involved in such an important program.
Had he known he says he would not have approached the group and asked them to leave. "We thought it was a dog training school where they were here using our floor plan to train dogs. "Messer called the vets and had them return to the store soon after the incident so he could personally apologize. "He extended his hand to us," said Haag. "We felt it was heartfelt and genuine, and we accepted his apology." Haag and his fellow veterans hold no ill will toward Messer, who has done his research and is now one of the group's biggest supporters.
Messer has met many of the veterans and the more he hears their stories, the more he wants to help. "We've been meeting the vets and talking to the vets and learning more and more about how this program helps them. We are hoping in the future to be a regular stop for them." Head canine trainer Brett Simon calls it a mis-communication that has worked out well in the end. " I think a lot of people got informed about service animals and what they do for these guys." Messer says he is going to begin raising money next week at his store to help k9sforwarriors.org. He says they will be at his store during the big air show next month to share their story.