A Dog’s Life
By Kristin Davis
[Editor’s note: In the photograph above are Marine Captain-Ret. Jason Haag and his service dog, Axel, constant companions for most of the past 11 years following Jason’s final, troubled return from multiple combat deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. Axel died on January 14, and this picture of Jason and Axel, by photographer Dave Ellis, was taken moments before he passed. Below is writer Kristin Davis’s obituary for Axel, posted on the website for Leashes of Valor, a nonprofit founded by Jason that advocates for, and trains, service dogs for other struggling veterans. Also posted below, after the obituary, are links to “Line of Departure,” a three-part series from 2013 published in the Fredericksburg, VA Free Lance-Star about the Haag family, and Axel, and Jason’s struggles with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury. The Pie & Chai editors send love to the Haags, our former neighbors, as they grieve a dog who changed their lives in so many ways. With Axel’s help, the Haags’ courageous efforts to seek peace in their own family created a path to healing for so many others. To learn more about Axel, and about Jason’s ongoing work on behalf of America’s combat veterans, go to Leashes of Valor.org.]
We are heartbroken to announce that our beloved Axel died this morning at age 13. Axel spent his final hours with Jason by his side and crossed the rainbow bridge surrounded by love.
After serving two combat tours in Iraq at the height of the war there and a tour in Afghanistan in 2010, retired Marine Corps Capt. Jason Haag suffered from debilitating symptoms of post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injuries. By the time he was paired with service dog Axel in 2012, Jason was relying on alcohol and more than 30 medications to make it through the day.
Axel was, in many ways, Jason’s last hope at some semblance of a normal life. Yet he would do so much more. Together, Jason and Axel traveled around the country educating policymakers, veterans organizations, and others on the life-changing benefits of psychological service dogs for military veterans who, like him, had nowhere else to turn after exhausting a litany of medications, therapies, and rehabilitation programs.
Over the years, more than 50 news outlets featured Jason and Axel, and Jason shared their story at national foundations, universities, museums, Fortune 500 companies, veterans organizations, and more. In 2015, Axel was an American Humane Association’s Hero Dog of the Year finalist—taking home the title of Service Dog of the Year in a televised gala in California.
Ironically, the airline Jason and Axel flew on did not allow Axel to board the plane on the trip home. Undaunted, Jason went on to advise Congress, the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Government Accountability Office, and the airline industry on wide-ranging policies regarding service dogs. Psychological service dogs like Axel have not always enjoyed strong legal standing, but that changed with the federal regulations that protect their status while limiting abuses by emotional support animals. Axel played a major role in that change, and together he and Jason gave voice to a community of veterans who have suffered in silence. In 2017, Jason founded Leashes of Valor, a national nonprofit that provides service dogs at no cost to veterans suffering from the unseen wounds of their military service.
The ultimate goal of a service dog is to one day allow a veteran to live without one. Axel did that for Jason—and so much more. Axel has spent the last several years living the retired life while Jason has continued his mission to ensure other veterans enjoy the lifesaving benefits of service dogs. Axel was faithful to the end, loyally awaiting the return of his person at the end of every day.
But Axel wasn’t just Jason’s dog. In a way, he belonged to all of us. Please know that our hearts are with you, too, as we grieve his loss together. The love you have shown Jason and Axel and the organization our hero dog inspired has sustained us over the years and will continue to inspire the work we do every day. Love—and LOV—lives on.
To our best boy Axel: “Well done, good and faithful servant.” May you rest in eternal peace.
LINE of DEPARTURE
Part I When War Ends, Wounds Remain
Part II: Am I Some Kind of Monster?
Part III: Healing is Elusive for Combat Vet
The Haags’ story was also the inspiration for the novel Great Falls, discussed in “Obscene and Not Heard” in the January issue of Pie & Chai.