Katie Ribbens–Staff Writer
Sergeant James Clinton II stands in the Le Mars Veterans Memorial Park watching his two sons clamber around an old army Jeep. His daughter observes with wide brown eyes from her perch in the stroller. His hand clutches a worn leather leash. On the other end—his lifeline.
The golden eyes miss nothing.
In the smiling face of Patton the service dog, they are a comforting thing. The kind eyes quietly observe, surrounded by fine chocolate fur. Watching. Waiting. Ready to act. Ready to serve.
Clinton dedicated himself to the army, sacrificing his mind and body. He sustained physical injuries during his time in Afghanistan, but it’s the PTSD that keeps him awake at night. So when he needed saving, the nonprofit Partners for Patriots in Anthon, Iowa stepped in. Their mission? To donate service dogs to disabled veterans. Dordt University is currently examining ways for students to get involved with the nonprofit, situated one hour from campus.
Clinton walked into the kennels expecting a German Shepherd but came home with a German Shorthaired Pointer instead, by the name of Patton.
“He’s like a godsend,” Clinton said. “You should have seen me before I had him— like it was a whole different me.”
Patton is currently the only one of his high-energy breed to succeed in his job at Partners. On his dancing paws are swirled speckles of brown. His stubbed tail furiously swishes through the air with all the more intensity to make up for its lost length.
As Clinton tells his story, Patton forces himself into his lap, supporting him as he trudges through the heavy memories. He places a paw on Clinton’s chest. I’m here.
Years ago, rattling and bumping as he sat in the first of four trucks in his convoy, Clinton comprised one of fifteen members of his platoon. His job—to serve as a 50 Cal gunner and offer personal security detail for his battalion commander. On only his third day of the job, escorting his commander back from a meeting with the Afghan government, Clinton experienced his first gunfight. In one sudden, explosive moment, the Taliban attacked.
“The stupid thing in my eyes is that we always go back the same way we went in,” Clinton said. “It always gave the enemy the knowledge of like, ‘Hey they’re going to come back this way,’ You know, all they got to do is just wait.”
It wasn’t in the cards for Clinton to escape unscathed. His friend, a fellow gunner, never made it home.
Clinton watched as his friend, assigned to another truck, hit a roadside bomb. Numbed from the shock, he didn’t believe it. Not until later. Only then did he recognize the finality of the situation. Then the hatred came. Toward the enemy, toward God. Clinton wrestled with the questions. Why would God take away a husband and a father from his wife and three children?
And then it was his turn. Another day, and another firefight ruthlessly pursued Clinton as he lay stuffed in the gunner’s turret atop the truck. Suddenly, Clinton found himself laid out with a punch to the gut. Then he saw the blood. With the realization came waves of pain.
“I couldn’t even explain,” Clinton said. “Anything other than like somebody else getting shot, and I’m feeling it.”
A methodical approach greeted Clinton in the moments after the bullet went through his groin, taking with it some of his intestines. He stubbornly held onto consciousness as the medics placed him on the ground and sliced through his clothing, yanking off his boots. Rather than flip Clinton over, they cupped their hands and slipped them behind him. They came back red. There was an exit wound.
Clinton remembers the chopper, then everything went black. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself in Germany with a colostomy bag for a companion. But it wasn’t until he was back in the States a few weeks later that his true battle began.
The pills meant to alleviate Clinton’s pain turned against him. In no time, he became addicted. After he was cut off from the medication, he resorted to heroin—and drinking on top of it. He forged a friendship with a fellow addict, then just as quickly lost him. He died with the needle still in his arm.
With 2015 came a ray of hope. Clinton met his wife, who turned his life around. But he knew he needed another partner to support him through the struggles ahead.
A few weeks after he gave up drinking in September of 2019, he met Patton. And he’s been sober ever since.
As Clinton stands up again, the ghosts of his past cling to him. But now, Patton is there. He weaves around his legs and looks up at his partner. He releases a high-pitched whine. Are you okay?
“It’s a distraction,” Clinton said. “To take your mind off of what you’re thinking and put it to something that’s better.”
It’s clear that Patton takes his job seriously. He single-mindedly focuses on Clinton, his royal blue vest stating in white stitches: SERVICE DOG. DO NOT PET. He even has his own business cards. But as soon as the vest is off, Patton sheds one identity for another: playmate and guardian for his handler’s children.
As Clinton’s daughter toddles around the park, Patton walks in step with her, hips gently swaying in tune. His back provides the perfect handhold as she fights a losing battle with balance. Even as he stands across the lawn, he’s checking in on Clinton.
A look toward. A look away. Do you need me?
It’s at about this time that Clinton’s daughter begins to cry. In one well-practiced maneuver he swoops her into his arms. Her shoes and socks mysteriously disappeared, so her button toes are exposed to the cold Iowa wind. Clinton gently massages warmth back into them, nuzzling her hair and whispering sweet nothings to her.
His sons say that Patton is their best friend. They were just as excited to welcome him into the family. But they know that he’s no ordinary dog. When the vest is on, he’s working to keep their father safe.