August 26, 2020
A Navy vet with PTSD will run the Pittsburgh Marathon with her service dog
Melissa Hughes has run dozens of races since her first 5K five years ago. So she knows exactly how it’s going to go down when she and her best friend run through the city on Sunday during the Pittsburgh Marathon.
Strangers shouting out their names. People pointing fingers.
Most definitely there will be cheers, most of which, Ms. Hughes conceded with a laugh, will be directed toward Argos, her service animal and constant companion for the past year.
She totally gets it. You don’t often see a dog with sunglasses running through Pittsburgh; when they toe up on Sunday — Ms. Hughes at the start and Argos at the second relay exchange near Station Square — the pair will be only the sixth human-dog combo since the marathon relaunched in 2008.
“People see him and say, ‘Hey, look at that dog! Let’s go, dog!’ ” she said.
What spectators don’t know is why Argos is on the course with her, or the crucial role he plays getting her out there in the first place.
In 2014, three years after leaving her job in the Navy, Ms. Hughes was diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder. It was brought on by military sexual trauma she said she experienced while working as an expeditionary intelligence specialist with the Seabees in Little Creek, Va.
The ongoing assault and abuse came from a superior, and it got pushed under the rug when she reported it, she said.
“All the blame was put on me,” she said, after which she was taken off active duty and sent back to the reserves at a base in Avoca, Pa., until her enlistment was up in 2011.
The experience took its toll. When she wasn’t self-medicating with alcohol, she was looking over her shoulder and feeling paranoid. Crowds made her panic. She couldn’t sleep. She was angry.
Still, it took several years before she could admit she had a problem — and needed professional help to handle it.
Starting to run with a service dog as therapy, she said, has helped her climb out of the rabbit hole.
‘I don’t want to live like this’
Ms. Hughes, 39, remembers being so excited when she enlisted in the Navy Reserve in 2003. She had dropped out of Marywood University after one semester because of an unplanned pregnancy, and needed direction. The military would provide discipline and build character.
She loved her job as a logistics specialist, and even fell in love with a fellow Sailor, though his constant travel caused their marriage to quickly unravel. She went on active duty while getting a divorce and ended up at Little Creek in 2007.
Having the Navy dismiss her report, she said, was heartbreaking. “I hated the Navy after that,” she said. “It took a few years to even say I was a veteran.”
One of four women veterans experience military sexual trauma, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. While reactions vary, PTSD is a common diagnosis.
Back home in Jessup with her parents and son, she studied criminal justice at Penn State Wilkes-Barre, taking a job as a corrections office when she graduated in 2012. All the while, she tried to forget the past with negative, self-destruction behaviors.
She finally reached out to the VA in 2013, a year after she remarried. As someone who’d always been really outgoing, she hated the fact she didn’t like to leave her house and smelled like booze and cigarettes. This isn’t me, she remembered thinking. I don’t want to live like this.
It was a relief, being diagnosed soon after, because now she could put a name on how she was feeling. But it was a burden, too, because there’s stigma attached to PTSD. Having a service dog, she said, broadcast this invisible disability to the world.
Early in her therapy, Ms. Hughes read how service dogs were being used by vets to ease trauma. When her therapist agreed one might help her, too, she got a German shepherd puppy named Jager and started training him. They were a team until he unexpectedly died from an aneurysm last October, after running a half-marathon in Philadelphia.
“He helped me find my voice to talk about things I couldn’t talk about before,” she said.
Losing him was hard. But as luck would have it, 4-month-old Argos had just joined the family. Training him would keep her mind off things.
Start slow, and build up miles
Ms. Hughes paid for Argos with help from a local group called Sprint for Service Dogs. The runt of the litter, he cost $1,000.
She chose a Dutch shepherd because they’re task driven and easy to train. They also love to run.
Training a service dog typically takes two years, and is specific to the disability since everyone’s triggers are different. For PTSD, service dogs learn to create a buffer around their owner in large crowds or public places, and also to bring the handler back to reality during dissociation with deep pressure therapy or grounding — face-licking, pawing or jumping into the handler’s lap. Ms. Hughes is training Argos herself with help from the PTSDog community on Facebook.
As for the running, training a dog for the marathon is just like training a human: You start slow, and build up miles.
Medical service dogs are protected under the Americans with Disability Act. But typically their participation in the race has to be approved beforehand, so people know the dog has all the appropriate shots.
During the actual run, it’s up to the participant to make sure the dog is taken care of on the course, said Pittsburgh race director Patrice Matamoros. Along with poop bags, Ms. Hughes will carry a retractable bowl for water. She’ll also wax Argos’ paws to protect them from the hot asphalt, and keep a careful eye to make sure he’s not overheating. Rex Specs goggles protect his light eyes from exposure to the sun and dust and debris.
Looking out for each other
Now employed as an investigator at the National Background Investigations Bureau, Ms. Hughes gets tons of support from a Scranton-based running group called CINAO (Can’t Is Not An Option). Its camaraderie, she said, has made her realize it’s OK to open up about her problems, and to listen when others share theirs. Argos, something of a celeb around Scranton, often is the icebreaker.
Members frequently travel to races together — she’ll run Pittsburgh with her friend Christine Jackson — and they carry each other through every step.
Group leader Frank Swaha said he’s continually amazed by Ms. Hughes’ will to succeed. He also admires her passion to help others. “She brings people together,” he said.
She hopes to beat the 4:25 she clocked in October’s Marine Corps Marathon. But really, she’ll be happy just to finish.
“It’s hard to be sad when you’re releasing endorphins,” she said.