His father always told him that when a man points a gun in your face, if he doesn’t fire in the first two seconds then he doesn’t want to. You know you have time, however brief, to change the outcome.
In November 2001, the advice would prove useful to Dave Sharpe while he was serving abroad in the wake of 9/11. He had a physical confrontation with a Taliban sympathizer in a 10’ by 10’ hut. When he thought it was over he turned his back on the man and began to walk away, only to hear the metallic click of a round being chambered. He turned to find himself staring down the barrel of an MP-5 machine gun. He raised his own weapon and that’s when his father’s advice kicked in: he lowered his rifle, feigning surrender, and tackled the man.
He later walked it off. That’s what you do. Dave Sharpe is the fifth generation of a military family with an unbroken line of service that dates back to the Civil War. His father, an Army Ranger for 32 years, served during the Vietnam era and was a unit commander during the riots in Augusta, Georgia, during the 1960s.
After Dave returned to the States, acclimation to life on this side of the pond proved difficult. Soon after returning, one friend and one fellow Security Forces Airman committed suicide. One of their girlfriends asked Dave to collect a few belongings from the dead friend’s apartment. Dave entered the room and the first thing he noticed was dried blood in the cracks of the floor where his friend shot himself. “That was my trigger,” Dave reflects, “I began imagining slow-motion bullets going through my head. After that, I felt the walls caving in. I stopped seeing friends. I stopped taking calls from my family.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not a new phenomenon. Across the wars of the 20th century it has taken on different names: shell shock, battle fatigue, and today PTSD. Our soldiers leave the battlefield but the battle doesn’t automatically leave them upon arriving back in the States. Historically, veterans found comfort in talking to other veterans with common experiences. Anecdotes were shared over a beer at VFWs and American Legions in small towns across America. Today’s veterans have a unique challenge. They are returning to a different country than their predecessors. In many respects, the United States has become a more understanding country, but for that very reason the re-acclimation is all the more foreign to those who just served in combat.
When a thunderstorm broke out over Dave’s home in Arlington, Virginia, the crash of thunder kicked in his muscle-memory, and he found himself walking the perimeter of his suburban lawn, as though he was still protecting his base.
That was when a friend offered a suggestion: “Let’s go check out a pit bull rescue center.” It was time, he surmised, for Dave to adopt a dog. They drove to the animal shelter, where Dave saw the litter of puppies. One of the puppies played hard to get. “She came over and licked my hand then went back to the other side of the play pin,” remembers Sharpe. “I knew then: I was going to make her love me. I love challenges.”