By Elizabeth Perry
One of retired Chief Master Sgt. Eric Dudash’s favorite sayings is, “It’s okay to not be okay.”
Eric, a Presston native, is the vice commander of Alabama state’s Veterans of Foreign Wars, Alabama Veteran of the Year 2022 and a staunch mental health advocate.
In November he donated a POW commemorative flag to the Presston Veterans Memorial at the request of local Stowe Commissioner Cheryl McDermott and later spoke to Gazette 2.0 about his personal struggles and public mission.
Eric served in the Navy from 1988 to 2018, went through 17 deployments, worked with specialized operation command, focusing on hostage rescue.
“As far as living and being at places, you name a country, I've seen it.”
The 52-year-old saw combat in Operation Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. He’s been deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan, and some regions in South America. He’s lived in Europe, Korea and Japan.
“As they go on deployment, you get a different husband back every time,” said Barbara Dudash, his wife of 16 years.
When they retired to a parcel of land in Menton, Alabama, to grow vegetables and live quietly, Barbara said “that’s when it all really (came) down.”
Eric suffered from traumatic brain injury and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
“I felt worthless when I got out, depressed.”
He had lost 14 of his fellow soldiers, three of them to suicide, and he struggled with a sense of purposelessness on his return to civilian life.
Though he handled his trauma “wonderfully” on the outside, Barbara said internally he was having vivid flashbacks, dealing with nightmares and anger issues. She said she had to be a “strong woman” to push back on his behavior, as he tried to be the commander he was in wartime at home with her.
“I'm not his airman,” she said.
Children screaming are a trigger for her husband. Knowing him as well as she does, Barbara said she can read his expression, and know when he needs help. Eric said doing something as simple as picking up a bag of sugar in the grocery store once kicked off a terrible memory. The weight of the bag felt exactly like the weight of a severed arm, and for long moments he stood rooted in the aisle, disoriented and afraid.
“My wife would have to rescue me. I would stand there for three to four minutes. I couldn't move
She would have to come get me,” Eric said.
Despite the debilitating nature of his illness, and even contemplating suicide, Eric initially didn’t want others to know. “You hide it with a smile,” he said.
With his wife’s help, Eric sought treatment through the Department of Veterans Affairs. He also found purpose through the VFW’s #StillServing campaign, which encourages the celebration of veterans’ civilian contributions within their communities.
In February of 2020, a source of unexpected help arrived and changed Eric’s life. A service dog named Phantom helped him to deal with the crippling effects of PTSD and they’ve “been a team ever since.”
“Phantom reduced my medicine by 60%,” Eric said.
The service dog gave him the freedom to go out and run errands without needing Barbara to come with him.
Phantom nudges Eric when he’s experiencing a difficult moment and makes sure he doesn’t get lost in his own mind.
“(Phantom) is wonderful. He really has made a whole world of difference with Eric,” said Ruth Dudash, Eric’s mother.
The service dogs cost about $29,000 with training, and the Alabama-based organization, Warrior Freedom, provides dogs to veterans at no charge. After receiving Phantom, Eric joined their board.
“I try to give back to those individuals,” Eric said.
Diane McDermott, development director for Warrior Freedom, said the organization receives no money from the VA, though they sometimes give them referrals.
“We are 100% donor-based,” McDermott said.
The organization typically matches between eight to 10 veterans with dogs each year. They operate in Alabama, Georgia, and Tennessee.
McDermott said they just had a veteran graduate from their program who drove two and a half hours every day to acquire a service dog. Not all of the combat vets are able to complete the program for a variety of reasons, including their PTSD symptoms, McDermott said.
Gary Kunick, a representative from VA public affairs said via email: the “VA does not purchase service dogs for PTSD, traumatic brain injury, or any other disabilities. VA may provide veterinary health insurance benefits for certain service dogs.”
According to the VA’s website, a health insurance benefit is available through the VA for “visual, hearing, or substantial mobility impairment,” but not for PTSD or traumatic brain injury.
Eric wears a black ring on his index finger to honor the veterans and active service people who take their own lives every day. Now he stays focused on his new mission; continuing to be there for his family while sharing his story with others. He speaks to students and to veterans groups. Letting veterans know about the benefits they have earned is one thing he finds particularly important. Giving them a sense of support is another.
“I was honored to be the Alabama Veteran of the Year this year. I think this is just a vessel to talk to other veterans to let them know that it's okay to not be okay.”
If you are a veteran and you are struggling, call 1-800-273-8255.