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Meet a veteran: Navy vet once fought fires, now fights for service dogs

Sgt. Dillon (left), Sgt. Truman (center), and Rear Adm. Bobbie (right), offer friendship and support to patients at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Sgt. Dillon and Sgt. Truman were trained by one of the organizations that receives grant funding by the Uniformed Services University's Wounded Warrior Service Dog Program. (Leigh Cutbert/Department of Defense)

In the service: Neil O’Brien, of Norwich, was born in Glastonbury and is a 1994 graduate of RHAM High School in Hebron. O’Brien, who had been a volunteer firefighter with the Marlborough Volunteer Fire Department, entered the U.S. Navy on Dec. 15, 1994, reporting to Naval Station Great Lakes near Chicago.

O’Brien was assigned to his first vessel, the USS Emory S. Land, a submarine based out of Norfolk, Va., where he worked from 1995 until 1997 as a firefighter, trained shipmates on fire safety, and maintained firefighting equipment.

O’Brien served one year of shore duty, reporting to the honor guard, before being assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise until his discharge in 1999. His rank at time of discharge was fireman, damage controlman striker.

After the service: O’Brien said he had a difficult time holding down steady employment after returning to civilian life. He said it was not until learning in 2014 that he had an undiagnosed brain injury, along with post traumatic stress disorder, both stemming from his time in the U.S. Navy, that he said things began to change.

He now gets by with help from his service dog, Kylie, a 3-year-old black Labrador/greyhound mix he received through the nonprofit Mutts Mending Military.

“You have no idea what she does for me,” O’Brien said. “I would not be alive without her.”

He said before receiving Kylie, she had to undergo a year of training, beginning when she was seven months old.

“For her, it’s instinctual,” O’Brien said. “If she senses something wrong, she knows how to react.”

He said he recently was denied a job, specifically due to his service dog, and now takes every opportunity he can to advocate to educate the public on the value of service dogs, and raise awareness on the cause, including at the Connecticut General Assembly, where he hopes to get state laws amended to increase protections for those who rely on support animals to get by.

He and Kylie are also part of the Keep The Promise Coalition, a lobbying group seeking a comprehensive, community mental health system in Connecticut. Now, O’Brien is still looking for full-time work, and said he sees himself working in customer service, or a job that allows him to interact with the public.

Quotable: “I miss it, military service. I still have a military mind, and I would not be myself without having served.”


©2019 Norwich Bulletin, Conn.

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.