Long before American Heroes Smokehouse took up residence in Wayne, Hamilton Garces was familiar with the exact stretch of Hamburg Turnpike the restaurant sits on. “I broke my arm so many times as a kid,” Hamilton said. “I found myself at the same hospital [Kindred Hospital], over and over, being treated by the same doctor. He finally told me if I came back they’d have to take my arm,” he recalled with a chuckle. Many years later, Garces, a proud veteran of the United States Marine Corps, found himself with injuries that proved harder to heal.
Coming off of four years of service, with three separate deployments (Afghanistan in 2011; Jordan in 2012 and Japan in 2013), Garces is among the estimated 11% of Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The actual number is likely much higher, and exposure to combat trauma is the best predictor of PTSD. “Returning home, back to the reality of regular life, was a dark period for me,” Hamilton confided. “Between the night terrors, self-medication, and self-medication through alcohol, I was at my lowest point when my dog Ahkeela came to me.”
While there is no magic pill for those suffering with PTSD, Ahkeela was a godsend for Garces. “Since the first night she came to me, I haven’t had a single night terror. I sank my arms around her fur, and the fear just melted away. And if I need her during the day, she instinctively knows: she’s right there to comfort me.” Veterans who rely on service dogs report lower levels of depression and anxiety, and fewer hospitalizations, among other benefits. There are distinctions between service dogs, emotional support dogs and therapy dogs, and while the VA provides for service dogs for veterans whose physical disabilities interfere with their mobility, no such service exists for the veterans whose injuries are psychological in nature. In this gap, there exists a number of organizations who work to provide veterans with highly trained and socialized service and companion dogs.
These days, for Garces, Ahkeela isn’t his only lifeline. In addition to his day job at the barbecue restaurant, Garces is an avid practitioner of yoga and jiu-jitsu, which he credits for bringing balance and peace to his mind, helping him control his anger and adjust to civilian life. But, he acknowledges tearfully, “this dog saved my life. I was truly at the brink of taking my own life.” Garces says he was called to service. Though Hamilton says being a warrior was part of his destiny, he is now reshaping his narrative. Now on the other side, he shared these words from the heart: “Appreciate this beautiful life, day by day, step by step, breath by breath.”