NOW WATCH: A chance for freedom: Service dog helps Alexander County trooper rejoin the world | Local News

Donna Swicegood

After tours in Iraq and two different branches of the military, James Hamby came home with a traumatic brain injury and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). He has not been able to leave his house for almost a year.

That all changed when she was paired with a golden retriever named Pokey. For Hambi, who lives in Hiddenite, Pokey represents more than a companion. Its calming presence can be summed up in one word – freedom.

Hamby, of Newton, said he thought he was destined to join the military from an early age. His father, uncle and grandfather all served. “It was something I always wanted to do,” he said.

However, he decided to take a slightly different path in serving his country than they did. He joined the Marines. A few years later, with the bases closing and his chances of re-enlisting running out, Hamby said, he had to choose between staying in the military or returning to civilian life. He wanted to remain in the military service and joined the army in 1997.

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In the following years, according to Hambi, he organized several tours in Iraq. According to him, he made several tours to Iraq in 2003-2009. During those years, he endured a number of close calls, including when the car he was riding in was hit by several rockets. “I didn’t think I’d make it home,” she said.

He returned home, but came back traumatized by the slightest thing that triggered his PTSD. “Driving down the road, I could see a box on the road and slam on the brakes and think, ‘Is this going to explode,'” he said.

Hamby tried therapy, but it wasn’t an ideal solution for one simple reason. Hambi had a hard time leaving his house. “It was hard for me to go anywhere,” he said. “I haven’t been able to leave my house for almost a year”

Then his wife, Diane, a nurse, heard about a group called Patriot Rovers, which provides service dogs to veterans. Hamby applied and was accepted and was soon paired with Pokey. This was in 2011.

Pokey, he said, completely changed his life. “I can do what I want, go where I want, and he brought me back to earth,” Hamby said. A trip to the grocery store, or even a trip to see her kids and grandkids, wouldn’t be possible without Pokey, she said.

According to Hamby, he soon realized that Pokey was more than just a service dog. One day, he said, Pokey began to lick his foot. Hambi, a diabetic, decided to check his blood sugar. It was low. Another time, Pokey repeated his sudden lick and Hamby focused again, checked his blood sugar and realized it was high.

“It’s not something he’s trained for,” she said.

Knowing that Pokey was looking out for him in more ways than one also gave Hamby the courage to work on getting healthy. He said that both he and she wanted to lose some weight and decided to join the gym.

That led them to Planet Fitness in Statesville, where they were completely taken from the start, he said. “They were free from judgment from the beginning,” Hambi said.

With September designated as National Service Dog Month, Hamby said, she wants people and business owners to understand the importance of service dogs and understand that unlike emotional support or therapy dogs, service dogs can go where their handlers go. He hopes other businesses will follow the example of the reception he found at Planet Fitness.

She said she finds that open acceptance at every Planet Fitness she goes to — something she doesn’t always find with a service dog. “I’ve had the most trouble in restaurants,” he said. Some called him to corporate headquarters and received an apology and a gift card. “I don’t know if they’re retraining their staff,” he said.

But some restaurants are more than accommodating, he said. According to one restaurant owner in Taylorsville, he treats Pokey like any other customer. “She comes in and makes hot dogs for him,” she said. “She just loves him.”

Employees at Planet Fitness in Statesville feel the same way, Hamby said. “He gets up and says hello and they give him treats,” she said.

Ironically, Pokey gave Hamby his freedom, and he may soon do the same for Pokey.

Pokey was named after a soldier killed in Iraq in 2008. Michael Phillips was nicknamed Pokey, and trainers at Patriot Rovers named Hamby’s service dog after a member of the 101st Airborne.

Pokey is nearing retirement, probably by the end of this year, and will join Phillips’ parents in Ardmore, Oklahoma, to live out the rest of his life if they wish.

It is Hambi’s choice. Pokey can stay with Hambi, who will soon be getting a new dog.

Tanner, a Labrador retriever, will finish his training in December or January.

According to him, sometimes bringing in a new service dog with an existing dog can cause problems.

However, if the Phillips family decides not to adopt Pokey, Hamby said, his 17-year-old son, Hamby, will have a new owner as he and the new service dog get used to each other. Phillips’ parents, Dave and Angeline, are friends of Hamby’s and attended Pocky’s training sabbatical years ago.

She said it will be hard to let Pokey go, but she is comforted by the thought that the dog can continue its life with people who have a special bond with her.

Hamby said he will always be grateful for what Poki has brought him over the past decade — unconditional love and freedom.

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