Since being honorably discharged in 2013 from the Massachusetts Army National Guard following tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, disabled combat veteran Donald Jarvis has waged a personal battle: Supporting veterans who are struggling on the home front.
The Newbury resident is so dedicated to working with local, state, and federal officials to help veterans in crisis because he has been one of them. In fact, Jarvis credits his service dog, Mocha, with “a lot of who I am today.”
“My anxiety is a big problem, and he’s able to comfort me and keep me grounded when I’m becoming overwhelmed. At night, he lies on me when I toss and turn, and he wakes me up when I’m having a bad dream,” Jarvis said. “I couldn’t do half of what I do, if not for the assistance of my dog. So when he needs me, I want to be ready.”
Since returning to civilian life following seven years of service to the country, Jarvis has organized dozens of community and veteran events while striving to “be the person I wish I had” for fellow veterans who are recovering from physical and invisible injuries.
However, Jarvis found himself with unwelcome free time this past year due to multiple hospitalizations and medical issues that kept him homebound. To remain productive, he wrote and self-published “Mocha, The Superhero Service Dog.” Jarvis said all proceeds from the book, available from Amazon for $12.99, will be saved for anticipated veterinary bills for the 8-year-old black Labrador mix.
Told from Mocha’s point of view, the 27-page book begins on the street where the sick, abandoned canine must dodge danger in a constant search for food. After being taken to a shelter, he is rescued from euthanasia by a dog trainer, nursed back to health, and paired with Jarvis for his new job as a service dog.
During the graduation ceremony, Mocha recounts the true story of Jarvis presenting a letter and photo from President Barack Obama commending Operation Delta Dog for the Hollis, N.H.-based nonprofit’s efforts to train shelter dogs for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and other issues.
Jarvis, who was 20 when he enlisted in the service, turned 21 in Iraq while serving as a combat engineer tasked with driving a mine-protected vehicle to clear supply routes of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs. He says the “first day of my drinking problem,” caused by a “massive problem readjusting back home,” began the day he returned from the one-year tour in June 2008.
The unit was redeployed to the Middle East on Thanksgiving 2011, but Jarvis’s tour ended just three weeks after his arrival in Afghanistan when an IED explosion rocked his vehicle. Jarvis was hospitalized for two weeks in Germany, followed by six additional months of treatment at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital in Virginia.
He returned home with lingering effects of traumatic brain injury and PTSD, but also a new outlook.
“While I was in the hospital, I still had what had happened to me sitting in the back of my head, but I was also participating in all these positive activities for wounded veterans,” said Jarvis, recalling a recognition ceremony at the Pentagon, a tour of the White House during which Obama presented the group with presidential challenge coins, and one particularly memorable Washington Nationals baseball game at which Vice President Joe Biden called Jarvis’s mother. “I realized I didn’t have to go back to what I used to be.”
Since that time, Jarvis’s inestimable volunteer hours have earned more than a dozen civilian honors, including a 2012 President’s Volunteer Service Award. His roles include veteran outreach coordinator for Operation Delta Dog and founder of the Community Flag Retirement Box at the Byfield Fire Department, Wreaths Across America program in the Newbury area, and the Byfield Music & Arts Festival.
Jarvis also has been instrumental in organizing the Lions Club Thanksgiving dinner and Yankee Homecoming Veterans Luncheon, both in Newburyport; involving students in the Triton Regional School District in community projects; and beautifying the First Parish Burying Ground in Newbury.
“Putting my energy into these events is my outlet, my form of therapy,” Jarvis said. “I’m very fortunate to be in a better place now, and as long as I can do it, I will.”
While Jarvis is eager to return to event-planning as his health allows in 2020, he is proud of this opportunity to shine the spotlight on Mocha and all service dogs. Although Jarvis wrote “Mocha, The Superhero Service Dog” for children, he says its messages of hope are universal: Focus on the positive. Never give up.
“In the book, I tie Mocha’s struggles to my own struggles, so when I see how far he’s come, I have to look at what I’ve been able to accomplish as well,” Jarvis said. “I hope our story serves as encouragement that although life has its ups and downs, there are people who care and will help you work through whatever you are facing.”
Cindy Cantrell can be reached at email@example.com.