LaWanna Viers and Corey

Photo Courtesy LaWanna Viers

A Girl's Best Friend

April 10, 2018 - 4:26 pm

By Antonieta Rico, Service Women's Action Network

LaWanna Viers knew she wanted to be in the Air Force ever since she was in kindergarten.

At her elementary school's career day it wasn't the veterinarian, the nurse, or even the firefighter who captured her imagination. It was the Air Force recruiter.

"Everything about him was so sharp," Viers said.

She remembers the recruiter saying that a person had to be smart to join the Air Force, so that day Viers announced to her fellow kindergartners that that's what she would do.  And when a classmate chimed "Oh, LaWanna, you know you can't be in the Air Force because you're a girl and girls are dumb," young LaWanna's future was sealed. She was going to prove him wrong.

When she returned home for the summer after her first year at college, Viers could not wait any longer. A friend drove her from her parent’s house to the recruiting station. Her friend was joining the Army and tried, unsuccessfully, to lure her away from the Air Force, but Viers could not be swayed. While her friend walked over to the Army recruiter, she went next door into the Air Force office, and when she emerged again, she had a big smile on her face. She said signing up for the Air Force "just felt right." 

It may have been the recruiter in her kindergarten class that inspired her to join the Air Force, but it was the Air Force itself that made her stay.

"I grew up in the Air Force, I became an adult in the military," she said. Viers served for 25 years, mostly in Information Management, and eventually attaining the rank of Senior Master Sergeant. In the Air Force, she had excellent mentors and the Air Force "made me feel like they cared about me," she said.

Viers enjoyed being stationed all over the world, but she particularly loved Hickam, Travis, Howard, and Alconbury Air Force Base in England. 

"I was doing what I was born to do," she said.

Then came her deployment to Iraq in 2009.

Injuries from her deployment sent her into a downward spiral. Besides the physical wounds, which included spinal cord damage and injuries to both knees and feet that left her with a limp and needing the use of a cane to walk, Viers also suffered from invisible injuries.

She had nightmares and felt disconnected.  She started turning away visitors and refusing phone calls. Her family was the first to feel the effects.

"My children were afraid of me, they always seemed startled if I called them," she said.

Viers sought refuge in her room, which she equipped with a TV and a small fridge. If she needed something, she would text her kids in the house to go out and get the items, and she would only come out of her room to grab the items her kids had brought.  Her marriage ended in divorce.

"It was almost like I didn't have feelings, like I was just numb," she said.

Despite the large amounts of medications she was on, Viers felt like she was getting worse, not better.  Even making it to her VA appointments was difficult. Waiting in the lobby to be called to her appointment was the worst.

Then, a dog walked into her life. He made his way over to her as she waited one day for an appointment at her VA. As he stayed with her, Viers realized that her inner turmoil had dissipated.

"The dog was able to calm me down," she said.  Viers talked briefly with the service dog's owner, and when she was called in for her appointment, she asked her doctor about getting a service dog. The VA doctor wrote her a prescription for one.

Vier’s next step was finding the right organization that could provide her a service dog. That's how she first learned about K9s For Warriors. After submitting her application and going through the interview process, she was placed on their waiting list.

Then she got the call. They had a dog for her.

All she had to do was get on a plane, fly to Florida, stay in a strange place she had never been before, and complete the 21-day training program while sharing living space with other strangers.

"I can't do this," she thought.

But K9s For Warriors worked with her, talking to her and reassuring her. They told Viers that they would be there every step of the way, even meet her at the airport. "If you get on that plane and get here, I promise you we'll be there waiting for you," they said. So Viers got on the plane, and when she landed in Jacksonville, Florida, there they were.

"I felt like this weight had lifted," Viers said, holding back tears. "They are tears of joy," she says.

Her service dog, Corey, is beautiful. She has big brown eyes and she likes to smile. When Corey smiles, Viers says she feels like Corey is telling her "You can do this."

But the best part of the sweet and cuddly, tricolor, American Bulldog and Boxer mix, is her personality. "One of my issues is hyper vigilance," Viers said, "I can go from zero to 100 in a moment." But Corey is very mild and quiet. "If I'm going high, she is always very low and she can bring me to where she is in a very calming way," she said, "I need someone to quiet the storm and that is what Corey does for me."

LaWanna Viers and Corey
Photo courtesy LaWanna Viers

Although Corey helps her navigate social situations, such as protecting Viers’ boundaries when people get too close, she also draws scrutiny from curious strangers, which Viers said can be compounded by the fact that she is a woman veteran.

 "It can be embarrassing to explain why you have a service dog," Viers said, "A lot of women are ashamed to get a service dog or this kind of help." But she encourages all veterans suffering from invisible injuries, especially women veterans, to research the possibilities of what a service dog can do for them. "Dogs are brilliant and they can help with just about anything you are going through," she said.

K9s For Warriors provides service dogs for post-9/11 veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, or military sexual trauma, and they have women-only training programs.

"I think women can definitely benefit by having a sidekick that can protect you, make you feel comfortable, and give you the reassurance to go back out there and live life," Viers said. That is what Corey has done for her, given her back her freedom, she said.  

When Viers first got Corey, she had to take her out on walks. She then realized that she enjoyed the fresh air. On one of these walks, she took Corey to the dog park where she met another veteran who invited her to start participating in adaptive sports. Now, Viers is participating in a variety of sports including wheelchair basketball and archery, and she has competed in the Air Force's Warrior Games and the Valor Games Midwest, amongst others. She also got certified as a Scuba diver. 

"I never would have done this on my own, it was other warriors who pulled me in," she said.

Last year Viers took on some of her biggest challenges yet. She traveled to France with Corey and then she sailed to Cuba. Without Corey. 

Cuba, on a sailboat, with about 15 people, is a lifetime away from the days she used to hide from the world behind the closed door of her bedroom. Having Corey, Viers said, helped her regain her power and her sense of self.

In collaboration with the Service Women’s Action Network, we are featuring an inspiring woman veteran each month. Check out our previous feature: 11 military women who made history.