By Taylor Knopf
On Saturday mornings, Billy DeWalt stretches for a workout class at Neuse River Crossfit while his dog, Quinn, sits patiently watching. There are other adaptive athletes in the room.
A one-armed athlete works out his remaining shoulder. Meanwhile, a woman with nerve damage lifts weights, despite arm and leg braces.
“Everybody should be able to have their own health. That shouldn’t be a special thing that only certain people can have,” said John Prescott, the gym owner. “Everyone should have it.”
Prescott said adaptive athletes like DeWalt started coming about four years ago and the group has grown organically.
Dogs such as Billy DeWalt’s boxer, Quinn, can provide services such as seizure alerts, diabetes alerts, assistance moving around and other functions, while also being a companion. Video credit: Taylor Knopf
It’s a place DeWalt feels at ease. And it’s a place that’s welcoming of everyone, including Quinn.
She is a 4-year-old boxer who sports a service vest with pink ribbons and pink or purple painted toenails. She goes everywhere with DeWalt, in the car, to the office, to his kids’ school and on planes.
DeWalt is an Army veteran and Quinn is trained to help him cope with Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and anxiety.
Quinn will alert DeWalt before a seizure. He said this is especially helpful to him in the car because it allows him a little less than a minute to pull to the side of the road before the seizure happens.
The injury to his brain causes DeWalt to have petit mal seizures, which are not obvious since they have no tremors or thrashing. Nonetheless, they are dangerous because he basically freezes for up to 30 seconds, his attention redirected. Quinn is trained to find somebody if he ever experiences a larger episode or act as a pillow for his head in the event that he falls down.
Quinn calms DeWalt when he’s feeling anxious. She walks ahead of him — know as “big guy” on Quinn’s Instagram account — so he won’t be surprised by anything around the corner. She will also wake him from PTSD-induced dreams.
But obtaining a service dog isn’t easy or cheap. DeWalt said the cost of an animal, in addition to training and insurance, runs anywhere from $40,000 to $60,000. And the Department of Veterans Affairs doesn’t cover it. He’s working with organizations such as K9s Serving Vets to help more veterans acquire a service dog.
For DeWalt, Quinn represents a new phase in his life, one where he’s open about his limitations as he’s become an advocate for mental health and veterans.
DeWalt didn’t always know how to handle his mental health issues. And when his time in the military was cut short due to his TBI and seizures, it was hard to let go of that life.
He’s a survivor of two suicide attempts.
Dream cut short
DeWalt was an Army paratrooper stationed at Fort Bragg with the 82nd Airborne and then in Germany with the 1st Infantry Division. It wasn’t until he was on deployment to Turkey in the early 2000s when a physician assistant discovered his seizures.
DeWalt said he trained really hard and sustained a few concussions which created scar tissue on his right frontal lobe.
He’d had his sights set on the U.S Army Special Forces. Growing up, DeWalt said he and the other kids would play “army” all the time. His dad was in the military and DeWalt signed up before he even turned 18.
“There was a lot of stigma around mental health in the military when I was in,” he said. “Any chink in your armor disqualifies you [from Special Forces.] For that reason, I ignored a lot of things I should have paid attention to.”
While the rest of his troop readied for deployment, he was sent back to get his seizures checked out. He was medically discharged in 2004, which he said was “kind of hard.”
“I had been training to go to war and right before we hit the start line, I got pulled out,” he said. “That was hard to deal with.”
He said many of his fellow soldiers turned to drugs or alcohol in tough times, but he had four kids to prioritize.
“During the second hospitalization, I made peace with my regrets and have tried to find my purpose since then,” he said of his second suicide attempt. “I can’t think my purpose is solely going to work and paying bills.
“At this point, I’m just trying to stay healthy. There’s a reason for being here,” DeWalt continued.
So he’s turned his attention to helping other veterans. He’s invested a lot of his time in volunteering, telling his stories, and educating others about disabilities. For example, he’s on the board of the local military veterans resource coalition and does a lot of fundraising and races with them.
DeWalt is over 6 feet tall, with black hair, a beard and multiple tattoos. He just looks strong.
It’s not hard to see why DeWalt says many doubt his disability or take his issues less seriously.
“Sometimes invisible disabilities are hard,” he said.
And people, including past employers, have a hard time understanding that he needs Quinn around all the time.
Now, DeWalt is an IT project manager for a software development company, and he says his employer “meets the golden standard for dealing with people with disabilities.”
When he got the job, he said the human resource staff called to ask what other employees should know about Quinn before he even started.
“It was nice to work somewhere where they didn’t treat me like I wasn’t broken from day one,” he said.
But DeWalt said he’s found that many institutions don’t have comprehensive policies for service animals. He’s had trouble at his son’s school, which has a policy for students or employees with service dogs, but not parents.
“I thought the one place I won’t have to worry about her is a health care facility,” he said. “But it was one of my worst experiences.”
When picking up his wife from a surgery, the hospital would not let him in with Quinn to pick up the discharge papers. They had a policy for a patient with a service dog, but not a caretaker.