A special pairing helps lead veteran to graduation
Palm Beach State College student Daniel O’Neal will graduate May 9 with an Associate in Science degree in paralegal studies.
He won’t be walking across the stage alone though. He’s bringing a very dear friend with him. One who will also be wearing a cap and gown.
His friend is a 6-year old male Siberian Husky named Ghost. Without him, O’Neal might not have ever graduated.
“When I first became a student at Palm Beach State in 2008, I would come on campus and immediately leave,” said O’Neal. “I couldn’t even go out and eat lunch by myself. Many times, I would just starve.”
O’Neal was suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in the military for 12 years. Early on in his service, he experienced a traumatic event.
In 2004, he was sent to Iraq where he and his fellow servicemen got attacked one day. During the incident, O’Neal got shrapnel stuck in the back of his head and spent a month and a half recovering in the hospital. Other men in his group were also injured and one of them was even killed.
“My memory is really bad because of those injuries now, but I am learning to adapt,” says O’Neal.
For O’Neal, this threat to his life and other traumatic things one will experience during war led to the stress he felt when he tried to return to a normal life.
“I needed help and I knew I had to do something about it if I wanted to reach my goals in life,” said O’Neal.
After talking with his doctor, he decided to look for a service dog online. He was interested in the Siberian Husky breed and found one in Arkansas. After contacting the breeder, they flew Ghost down to O’Neal in 2011.
However, upon arrival, Ghost was only three months old. O’Neal says he spent the next six months training him.
“I would teach him to carefully watch my back when I was out in public,” says O’Neal. “This really helped alleviate a lot of my anxiety so I wouldn’t think that someone was going to come up behind me and try and hurt me. Eventually, I took him to campus with me and was able to stay, finish my classes and am now looking forward to finally graduating,” says O’Neal.
O’Neal says that Ghost has not only helped him to earn a degree, he has helped improve his quality of life and alleviate his emotional numbness.
“I was a more cold-hearted person before Ghost came along,” says O’Neal. “He has really helped soften my heart.”
O’Neal says he has lost count of the number of times he gets stopped on campus by people wanting to pet Ghost. He says that even though people aren’t technically supposed to pet service dogs while on the job, he says these social interactions are a good thing.
“The more Ghost gets exposed to people the more he can then help me feel comfortable and safe around people as well.”
O’Neal, who grew up in West Palm Beach and currently works downtown in a part-time position for the state attorney’s office, hopes to enroll in law school and study animal law in the near future.