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Veterans’ cross-country trek honors fallen hero, raises awareness

May 11, 2018 – The wagon, painted a bright lacquered red, covered with white canvas and drawn by a mule team, carries more than the two men driving the team.

It carries within it a promise made 50 years ago, a message of hope, and a purpose.

The journey began, in a sense, in Vietnam. It was a promise made between two Army buddies—Jesse Morton and Ray Cropper. The two were in the United States Calvary and bonded over an interest in Buffalo Soldiers. “Buffalo soldiers” is a nickname that was given to members of the 10th Calvary Regiment of the United States Army, an African American regiment. They decided that, once home, they would cross the country in a covered wagon to get a better feel for what the Calvary men who came before them went through. If one did not make it home, they promised each other that the other would make it in his friend’s honor.

Ray Cropper did not make it home.

Twenty-five years ago, Morton made the first leg of the trip, which included a stop at the Vietnam Memorial. Morton described his encounter with the memorial—two walls over 240 feet in length, where names of those lost in the Vietnam War are etched in the gabbro surface—as profound.

“When you look at the wall, and see those names, you can see soldiers staring back at you,” Morton said. “It brings out the best of you, and the worst of you.”

He added that he would caution any veteran to make sure he or she is in a strong enough place, emotionally and mentally, before gazing at the wall.

Morton suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD—as does the second veteran who is making the second leg of the journey with him, Luke Reinhold. Reinhold is a Desert Storm veteran. Reinhold brought the purpose to the promise, with his involvement with an organization called Dogs that Help.

Reinhold was given a prescription for a service dog from the Veterans’ Administration —and was told “good luck” as he left.

“Getting a service dog is next to impossible if you don’t have money,” Reinhold explained.

And, as a 100-percent disabled veteran, Reinhold didn’t have the funds to purchase a dog. He contacted two separate organizations that told him they would provide a dog for him free of charge—but one organization asked that he raise $10,000 in return. The other organization asked for $20,000 in donation.

“I told my wife, we can’t afford that,” Reinhold said. “But she told me, ‘We can’t afford not to.’”

Eventually, Reinhold found Dogs that Help, a nonprofit organization that is devoted to providing service dogs to veterans with PTSD at little-to-no cost. To do so, they’ve organized dedicated dog trainers and student dog trainers who have willingly donated their own time.

Both Reinhold’s dog Nita, and Morton’s dog Deacon were trained through this program.

The dogs were both trained with their owners specifically in mind. Nita, for instance, knows how to sense when Reinhold is about to have a seizure, and she is able to alert her owner beforehand, as well as provide physical support. Morton, who has diabetes, is alerted by his dog Deacon when his blood sugar is rising, because Deacon can smell it.

“He won’t leave me alone until I stop and do something about it,” Morton said. He added that his ANC1 levels were once at a dangerously high 13 but are now below seven.

Both dogs provide emotional support to their owners, as well.

Morton believes that Deacon has saved his life, and prevented the sight loss and limb amputation that often happens in the diabetic population.

“Before I had Nita, I had to grocery shop in the middle of the night. I hadn’t been to the movies in 25 years. She changed my life,” Reinhold said. “She’s made me a better husband. She’s made me a better father. She’s made me a better man.”

The two hope to raise funds so Dogs that Help, which has trained and gifted 16 service dogs, which would normally cost between $240,000 to $320,000, can continue their mission. To do so, they give talks on PTSD, and its effects on veterans.

“That 22 vets a day isn’t just a statistic, it’s a fact,” Reinhold said, referring to the more than twenty veterans who commit suicide a day.

Both men have a strong message for other veterans: Get help. Doing so, they stressed, doesn’t make a person any less, or weak. In fact, getting the needed help is a sign of strength, and a willingness to continue to live up to one’s own potential.

The two, along with Vittorio Blaylock, who helps the two with their medication and other needs, stayed in Excelsior Springs through Wednesday, camped out behind the Clay Ray Veterans Hall, sharing their story willingly with anyone who stopped by. Averaging about twenty miles a day, they hope to end up in Colorado Springs by the end of summer. Then, they hope to pick up their journey next summer where they left off, and head from Colorado to California.

When they hit the West Coast, Morton will have fulfilled the promise he made to his Army buddy 50 years ago and will have completed the trip he began 25 years later.  And between the two coasts, he, along with the help of Reinhold, will have raised awareness and funds so that more veterans can benefit from the help service dogs provide.

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By Samantha Kilgore •

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