OXFORD — When James Glaser and his Jack Russell terrier padded into Big I’s diner last weekend, a firestorm erupted that has shaken and divided this small town. The Iraq war veteran was greeted with expletives by the owner, Glaser and his service dog were evicted, and police were summoned to the door of the modest Main Street eatery.
“Get that [expletive] dog the hell out of here,” Big I’s owner Russell Ireland yelled at Glaser, according to the police report.
Nearly a week of invective followed, leading to a possible climax on Saturday when hundreds of veterans are expected to descend on this Worcester suburb to heighten awareness about post-traumatic stress syndrome.
To Glaser, the issue is callous disregard for a retired Air Force veteran who uses a service dog to calm his post-traumatic stress disorder. But to many others in Oxford, the vilification of Big I’s owner Russell Ireland, who has since apologized, is a symptom of how a petty dispute can become inflamed and distorted.
The incident has generated national coverage, and more than 30,000 people approved of a call on Facebook to boycott Ireland’s business.
“It’s the talk of the town; you can’t go anywhere without hearing about it,” said Gordon Cook, 50, as he worked the grill at Carl’s Oxford Diner about a mile away. “The guy screwed up. He apologized. Let’s get on with it.”
Although Ireland concedes he made a mistake, moving forward might not be so simple. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination is investigating, and outraged veterans in Oxford are predicting that Ireland’s business will suffer.
“I think the damage is done,” said Don Bilodeau, 63, a Navy veteran who sat outside the American Legion Post in Oxford this week. “These are the guys who fight wars, and they’re still fighting the wars, and you’re going to treat someone like that? It’s crazy.”
Ireland, 51, said he lashed out at Glaser Saturday morning because he did not believe that the terrier, named Jack, was a trained service dog. Jack had eaten off a regular plate that Glaser placed on the floor during a previous visit, Ireland said, and customers had been allowed to pet him.
Those actions, the owner continued, did not match the behavior of other service dogs and owners who had eaten at Big I’s. Besides, Ireland said shortly after the incident, “how much emotional support do you need when you’re eating breakfast?”
According to federal law, however, service dogs can accompany people with disabilities in all areas of a facility where the public is normally allowed. The dogs must be tethered and under control.
Glaser, 41, who retired as a master sergeant after 20 years in the Air Force, did not respond to repeated phone messages from the Globe. But he told police that Ireland was not interested in seeing Jack’s certification as a trained service dog, which the terrier received Aug. 9 from a Massachusetts trainer affiliated with a San Antonio organization called Train a Dog Save a Warrior.
Bart Sherwood, the group’s director, said the organization specializes in service dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. When panic or other symptoms begin to emerge, Sherwood said, “the dog will put his paw on the foot of the person, or against his leg, or scratch at him, or jump in his lap to try to get him to pay attention to him.”
The effect is intended to calm a veteran, Sherwood said, who “does not have a missing limb, he doesn’t have any missing fingers, he’s pretty much scar-free. The only wound he has is an invisible wound.”
The 9 a.m. rally Saturday is not intended to be a protest, but rather is an opportunity to educate the public about the needs of veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder, said Christopher Aker, an Army veteran of Iraq who is Massachusetts representative for the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association.
“We are making every effort not to impact the business in any way, shape, or form,” Aker said after a Wednesday meeting with Police Chief Michael Hassett. “We’re not allied with the boycott.”
Ireland said he has learned from the incident, which led to phone threats to burn down his building, other angry calls, and profanities from passers-by.
“I was ignorant. I didn’t understand the scope of PTSD,” Ireland said. “I have learned how important service dogs are for these people with post-
Still, he said, business is suffering, and patrons such as Sharon Milosh, 62, worried that Big I’s might not survive.
“This has been a living nightmare,” Ireland said. “I am an old-fashioned guy, and this seems to be part of the problem. I am not well known for being politically correct.”
Glaser wrote on Facebook that he accepts Ireland’s apology and that he endorses the rally’s emphasis on post-traumatic stress disorder education.
Ireland said he plans to be in the diner when the rally’s participants, many of them on motorcycles, pass Big I’s on Saturday morning.
“To me, it started as two guys fighting in the schoolyard, and then it became two countries going to war,” Ireland said with a weary shrug.
But after a week of battle, Glaser will be welcomed if he returns to the restaurant, Ireland said. By then, Big I’s might be equipped with a new, custom accommodation for service dogs like Jack.
“I think,” Ireland said, “that I’m going to buy some paper plates.”