Retired Staff Sergeant Jonathan Jose Castillo and his Freedom Service Dog, Kanga, graduated in December 2015. During the graduation ceremony, clients have the opportunity to share their story, and what the gift of receiving a Freedom Service Dog means to them. Jose’s speech was beyond moving, bringing the audience to their feet for a standing ovation. Below is his speech that we are honored to share on his behalf.
“Ladies and gentlemen, sponsors, volunteers, trainers, administrative staff, my wife and kids, thank you for attending this ceremony today.
The boots that I am wearing today have many, many miles on them from the waddys and palm groves to the sides of canals in Iraq. There are worn and torn in many different ways, they are softened form the continuous stress but also hardened by the constant pounding they received. Money can’t buy boots with this much history. So, too, has my heart and mind undergone tremendous stress and daily pounding from multiple deployments. I left as an ignorant 18 year old and returned a full grown man at 19 then a couple times more.
As a medic assigned to a combat team I experienced tremendous loss and grief, I saw the ugly side of war. As my son put it, ‘it’s like Call of Duty, but you don’t get to re-start if you die’. I came back with a few physical scars, which make for great stories at a bar, or a great one-upper story to teach someone about real pain, but the most painful scars, the ones that hurt the worst are the ones not visible. They are the ones that haunt me at night in my dreams and stop me from living my life to the fullest. PTSD, we’ve all heard of it, the daily mental fight that lingers and will not go away. For many who experience it, it has different manifestations. For me, it’s not the loud sounds that scare me, I got used to those. For me, it’s the constant reminder of those I could not save, it’s knowing that I broke a promise to a mother, a father and a family that I would bring back their young child. It’s a daily struggle with depression that, at times, makes it impossible to get out of bed or enjoy time with my own family. But enough about my past and my struggles, and on to what, hopefully, will become my success story.
A little over a year ago I was told about this great organization and what they do for so many with disabilities, both physical and psychological. First and foremost, I would like to thank my wife, Ruth, who pushed for me to apply for a service dog; she is the driving force behind my success in my struggles and life in general. I would like to thank the sponsors that make it possible for us to receive the services that we do. It’s easy to talk until someone says ‘put your money where your mouth is’, but you have done exactly that. To the staff that works tirelessly to find and place these amazing dogs, thank you for working many hours above your pay to ensure the success of the program. To the trainers that spend countless hours teaching and mentoring and loving these dogs, thank you. I know that whenever I get a compliment about my dog’s manners and behaviors, it will be due to your hard work and dedication, Cathy.
I was told you always saw the best toast for last. I would like to give a huge thank you to all the volunteers at Freedom Service Dogs. Your dedication and contribution is irreplaceable. As a medic I learned real fast the most valuable asset a human being possesses is time. You can always replace lost money, but you can never replace a single second of your life. Yet you are here spending your time, your most valuable asset, on a dog that you do not get to keep. You are donating your time and, therefore, a part of your life, for a complete stranger, and without requesting anything in return. You truly are an exemplary few for the rest of us. You do it for a greater cause than yourselves and that should never go unrecognized.
I will receive many years of help from Kanga and I owe that all to you, every one of you in this crowd that refuse to give up on people like me and many others, you that wake up and think of others first. Many say humanity and caring is a thing of the past and yet I see a room full of strangers proving that wrong. My name is Retired Staff Sergeant Jonathan Jose Castillo, and I would like to say ‘thank you’.”