LEXINGTON, N.C. — Two years after returning to Massachusetts from Iraq, the worst memories of her combat experience began to resurface for Natasha Young-Alicea: Five dead Marines, killed while dismantling unexploded bombs; the bloody gear she collected for disposal; the personal belongings that she sorted, packed, and returned to grieving families.
Nightmares, migraines, and anxiety attacks followed. The 31-year-old became increasingly isolated and depressed. She withdrew from family and friends. “I went from this bubbly, flowery woman to this lukewarm . . .,’’ the retired staff sergeant began, her voice trailing off. “I felt like a visitor in my own life.”
Eight hundred miles away, in this central North Carolina community, Samuel and Evelyn Harris faced their own dark memories of a beautiful, late summer afternoon in 2008 when a chaplain and four Navy SEALs drove up to their home and told them their youngest son, Joshua, a 36-year old SEAL, had drowned during an operation in Afghanistan.
“There are days,” said Evelyn Harris, “I don’t think I’m going to make it.”
Like thousands of Americans during more than a decade of war, the Harrises and Young-Alicea lived separately in their sorrow. They sought comfort from family and friends, advice from counselors, and solace in their community. They fought despair, and prayed for strength. They hoped to find some sort of peace.
And eventually they would, with the help of an unexpected friend — a two-year-old golden retriever — and, ultimately, each other.
Nobody ever expected much from Young-Alicea. She grew up poor in Lawrence, raised by her mother, who couldn’t work due to a disabling back condition and depended on government assistance. Her father, who struggled with drugs, was beaten to death in a bar fight when she was 19.
After graduating from a technical high school in Hathorne in 1999, Young-Alicea joined the Marines, where she earned honors and was quickly promoted up the ranks. “It was the first time that anybody in my young adult life believed in me that I could be more,” she said.
She was deployed to Iraq twice. By the second time, in 2007, she was a sergeant in a company that dismantled and disposed of unexploded bombs, grenades, and other ordnance.
It was part of Young-Alicea’s job to deal with the deaths and casualties that resulted from this dangerous assignment, including helping to craft letters of condolence to families. In addition to the five Marines killed during her eight-month tour, about a dozen more were wounded. “The ones that didn’t pass away were pretty messed up,” she said.
When she came back to Massachusetts, she worked 70 hours a week as a Marine recruiter in Plymouth and pushed the memories deep down inside her. “I didn’t feel,” she said. But three years ago, she had a baby, and then a series of serious health setbacks that eventually forced her to retire from the Marines. She fell into a black hole of despair.
“Things started surfacing,” she said.
A star who looked to help
Josh Harris grew up a world apart from Young-Alicea. His father is a gynecological surgeon and retired obstetrician; his mother, an actress who started a children’s theater in Lexington.
Josh went to Davidson College to play football and study art, and his darkly beautiful abstract paintings cover the walls of his parents’ home on a 300-acre former dairy farm.
He was always helping people, friends and family say. A star high school linebacker who defended a girl being bullied in the hall, the protective brother who slept on his twin sister’s couch when she moved to New York because he didn’t want her to be alone. He was also the boy who always brought home stray dogs.
Josh had wanted to be a Navy SEAL since he was in high school, his mother said, and after studying art in Prague, pursuing a graduate degree in architecture, and working as a carpenter, he became one at the age of 28.
He was deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan five times and received numerous medals, including a purple heart and two bronze stars with valor.
His mother worried, but she had a feeling that nothing could happen to the son who could do so much so well, and who could always tell when she was upset. Every time he left, he told his parents: “No matter what happens to me, just know that I am living my dream.”
On the day the Navy chaplain came to their door, his father recalled, “I just sort of fell to the ground like a bolt of lightning hit me.”
Jumping to top of the list
Sam and Evelyn Harris buried their son in Arlington National Cemetery, escorted there by the Patriot Guard Riders, a national motorcycle organization that accompanies grieving military families to funerals. One of the riders in attendance was David Cantara, a 48-year-old Army veteran from High Point, N.C., who rescues golden retriever puppies and trains them as psychiatric service dogs for veterans.
With the families’ blessing, he names them for fallen soldiers.
Two and a half yearsafter the funeral, he called the Harrises and asked if he could dedicate one of his dogs to Josh. Evelyn felt comforted by the thought of having another connection to her son, who was, she said, “insane over animals.”
“We are basically providing a living memorial for their son or daughter so their stories can be told, so their memories can be kept alive,” said Cantara, whose oldest daughter died as an infant. “It is a healing mission of course for the dogs and the soldiers, but also for the soldiers’ families.”
Cantara, who grew up in Biddeford, Maine, has placed 37 dogs with veterans free of charge and has nine more “recruits” in training through his two-year-old nonprofit organization, Patriot Rovers.
The dogs support veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and brain injuries, doing everything from alleviating anxiety with a gentle nudge to interrupting nightmares, turning on lights, and searching the house for intruders.
Each dog wears a sign that says “Ask to pet me,” providing a way for withdrawn veterans to interact with people and tell the story of a fallen soldier.
Cantara has 40 veterans waiting for dogs, but when he saw Young-Alicea’s application, with details of her service in an explosive ordnance disposal unit, she jumped to the top of the list.
At first, Young-Alicea was leery about getting a service dog. Her two-year-old golden retriever wears a picture of his namesake — bearded and wearing fatigues — attached to his red service dog vest.
“It shines a light on your issues,” she said.
But in the three months since she’s had Josh, she said, she’s been calmer. She and her son play with the dog in the yard, running and laughing together in ways they hadn’t before.
Everywhere Young-Alicea goes, Josh is with her — at the veteran center in Haverhill where she volunteers during the day, at Northern Essex Community College where she takes classes at night.
Once, when a professor’s remark made her leap to her feet in a rage, Josh stood up and licked her hand, nudging her gently back from the brink.
When she goes to the grocery store, Josh sits behind her in the checkout line, keeping people from coming up too close behind her, which makes her anxious. Each night, he sits in front of the closet where her medication is stored to remind her to take it.
“He loves me without judgment,” Young-Alicea said, tears glistening in her eyes. “He’s always got my back.”
For the Harrises, knowing there is a living symbol of their son, one that is helping another veteran cope with emotional battle scars, has been healing.
“We’re just keeping Josh’s good going,” Evelyn Harris said.
Coming together in memory
Last month, Cantara maxed out his credit card to fly Young-Alicea, her husband, Robert, and Josh down to North Carolina to meet the Harrises.
Cantara has run through his life savings to keep his operation afloat and is seeking more grants to cover the $6,300 cost to train and care for each dog.
The two families came together at the county fairgrounds during a festival held each summer in Josh Harris’s honor. The money raised at the annual festival goes toward military support organizations and scholarships for local students.
After standing silently while a bugler played taps, the Harrises walked over to Young-Alicea, who was waiting nervously under a tree, and wrapped their arms around her.
In the middle of it all, panting quietly, was Josh.
Evelyn Harris knelt down and stroked his head. “Josh,” she repeated softly as she looked at her son’s picture on the dog’s vest. “Josh.
“You take good care of Josh?” asked Harris.
“I love Joshua,” Young-Alicea said.
“Does he take good care of you?” Harris asked.
“More than you could ever imagine,” Young-Alicea replied.
That evening, Young-Alicea sat on the Harrises’ sofa and flipped through a photo album from his funeral.
Tears streamed down her face as she thought about the comrades she had lost in Iraq and the man she never knew who is now so much a part of her life.
Just after sunset, the Harrises took her to a memorial they had created for their son on top of a small hill — a bench flanked by two poles flying an American flag and a Navy SEALs trident.
Together, with Josh, they looked out over a field of young pines as the sky slowly darkened.
For more information about Patriot Rovers, go to patriotrovers.org.