OXFORD — A disabled Iraq War veteran who was not allowed to enter Big I’s diner with his service dog accepted an apology from the embattled restaurant owner at a veterans rally that drew about 500 people Saturday.
“I stand before you embarrassed, ashamed,” said Big I’s owner, Russell Ireland, 51, addressing the crowd that gathered on a humid, overcast morning at the Greenbriar Recreation Area, just yards from his Main Street diner. “I ask for your forgiveness.”
The apology was a high point in a 90-minute rally organized by the state’s chapter of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association, a national nonprofit. Ireland had first apologized last Wednesday for the Aug. 24 incident that drew national attention.
But Saturday was the first time he apologized directly to James Glaser, 41, the Air Force veteran who, along with his service dog, Jack, was turned away from Ireland’s 34-seat diner last weekend. As Ireland and Glaser shook hands and briefly embraced, Jack, a long-haired Jack Russell terrier, stood on his hind legs, placing his front paws on Ireland’s hip.
“I just want to thank you for the apology,” said Glaser, who said he retired from active duty in 2011 and has post-traumatic stress disorder.
After the rally, Ireland invited Glaser and his wife to visit Big I’s sometime for a complimentary meal.
The truce followed an emotional week during which Ireland said he received obscene phone calls and death threats. After not being allowed into Big I’s, Glaser contacted Oxford police, saying there had been an Americans with Disabilities Act violation.
The snub outraged disability advocates and veterans, who created a Facebook page calling for a public boycott of Big I’s. But organizers at Saturday’s rally canceled the boycott and said they will remake the page into one that educates people about PTSD. Several at the rally spoke about the importance of increased awareness.
“The incident is a symptom of the larger problem of a lack of awareness and understanding on the issue of PTSD and some of the treatments available, like service dogs,” said Chris Aker, the Massachusetts representative to the motorcycle association.
The rally began with a motorcycle ride, which drew about 300 veterans who roared past Big I’s at about 8:40 a.m., American flags flying from some bikes.
The ride caused barely a stir in the diner, where a half-dozen patrons sat at the counter.
“I understand he’s a veteran,” said Sandy DeLisle, 61, of Oxford, who sat eating corned beef hash. “But [Ireland] still has a responsibility to protect other patrons from a dog prancing around.”
A Dudley veteran questioned the protests of the past week. Franny Mik said he’d eaten at the restaurant five times since the boycott was declared.
“I know he’s a veteran,” said Mik, 72, who served in the Navy and wore a gray T-shirt with “Navy” printed on the front. “But how could people do this to [Ireland’s] restaurant?”
Ireland later learned Jack had been certified as a service dog on Aug. 9, and his apology last Wednesday opened the door for Saturday’s rally.
“That’s when I said, ‘OK, we’ve got to make this about education. . . . That’s my ultimate goal now,” Glaser told the crowd Saturday.
Ireland conceded he had not known much about PTSD or service dogs until Glaser and Jack showed up. “I was very uneducated about post-traumatic stress disorder,” he said. “I now realize how important the love of the animals are” to those who suffer from the disorder.
Glaser said he hopes he and Ireland can work together to educate business owners about the value of service dogs.
“This isn’t about me,” Glaser said. “This was about an ADA law that was not known.”
After the rally, Paula Jean of Marlborough headed to Big I’s with her service dog, Cooper the Motorcycle Dog . As Jean ate a western omelette, Cooper sat quietly in the seat beside her.
“I didn’t expect any problems,” said Jean, who said the rally changed her mind about Big I’s. “The food is good here.”