‘A piece of heaven’: Auburn veteran mourns beloved service dog | Lifestyles

After his first year with his service dog, Ciara, Eric Haynes wanted to celebrate. So he took her on a cruise to Mexico.It seemed like all 3,000 people on the ship knew her by their second day on board, Haynes told The Citizen. They all asked him if they could pet her. But one man, looking sullen, didn’t.Haynes struck up a conversation with him, and learned he was a canine handler. He had just lost his dog of nine years. Upon hearing that, Haynes asked Ciara to “do her thing.” She approached the man. Then, at last, he bent down and pet her. Sensing pain, and easing it, was her gift, Haynes said. It was a gift she gave the Auburn veteran and musician every day of their four years together.That moment on the cruise has been on Haynes’ mind since May 20, when Ciara died suddenly of a stroke at the age of 14. Now, he said, he knows how that man felt.”I’ve never been this close to anyone,” he said. “She not only showed me how to live, she changed my life.”

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Ciara will be mourned with a military-style procession the afternoon of Saturday, June 18, beginning and ending at American Legion Post No. 239 in Skaneateles.Ciara was part of the family at the post, Haynes said, and even had her own bowl there. She’ll be buried in Onondaga Valley Cemetery at the family plot of a close friend, Vietnam veteran Ron Patterson, who gave her his dog tags to wear on her service vest. The plot where she’ll be buried is the resting place of Patterson’s great-great-great-grandfather Wellington Patterson, a Civil War veteran.Patterson was one of countless hearts Ciara touched. From those she and Haynes met at Walmart to the 500 people who asked for selfies with the pair when they auditioned for “America’s Got Talent” in New York City, the Belgian malinois was a hit everywhere. Those people, and some from the cruise to Mexico, have been among hundreds of condolences Haynes has received, he said.

After serving almost 12 years of active duty in the U.S. Army, Eric Haynes wants to use his story and musical talents to help others heal.

“Everyone who met Ciara met a piece of heaven, and they knew it,” he said. “She had a smile that would break down walls. She captivated everyone.”An Army veteran of 12 years who served in Iraq from 2005 to 2006, Haynes was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder when he was connected with Ciara by a chance encounter at a songwriters workshop in Georgia. She had PTSD herself, having served as a bomb-sniffing dog for the Army. She was an hour away from being euthanized when she was saved to be trained as a service dog.In turn, Haynes said, she saved him. He had attempted suicide three times before adopting Ciara. But her effect on him was so comforting, and so immediate, that he wrote a song that day called “Tears of Joy.” She continued to inspire his music career, which has seen him release albums and perform concerts throughout central New York, singing and speaking his message about mental health.”We knew what it’s like to not have a voice,” he said. “We just hoped we could be an encouragement to others to help find theirs. Sometimes people are so deeply hurt that they don’t even feel they’re worth it. Self-worth is huge. Growing up, I didn’t have a lot. In my worst times, the biggest thing was humbling myself and admitting the problem. You’re no less of a person for asking for help.”Ciara’s last concert with Haynes took place a couple weeks before she passed away, at Colloca Estate Winery in Fair Haven. An album release party for the band Held Hostage, it was also the biggest concert of Haynes’ career, he said. As always, she spent some of the concert at his side, some watching from offstage. Miraculously, Haynes added, the whole concert was filmed for a music video.During the last song of his set, Haynes walked through the audience with Ciara. She was “loving on everyone,” he said with a laugh. Though many service dogs can’t be touched, he allowed his “brown-eyed girl” moments of affection with strangers because “she was just that type of dog.” Like the man on the cruise, many of them were in pain that was imperceptible to most — but not to her.”She understood people better than they understood themselves,” Haynes said. “She never asked for anything. She just gave.”It’s rare for military dogs to live “such an amazing life” after their service, Haynes said. He’s grateful he could provide that for Ciara. Whether it was going to concerts or the clothing she loved wearing, she was always smiling. Now, in her absence, he believes it’s more important than ever to continue their mission of helping people through the same hard times they survived to find each other.”As hard as it is, I think this has allowed me to practice what I’ve always preached about with Ciara,” he said. “I know she’s still with me in another way, working with me from another place.”

Lake Life Editor David Wilcox can be reached at (315) 282-2245 or david.wilcox@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @drwilcox.

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