JOINT BASE ELMENDORF-RICHARDSON, Alaska –
When Ken Bylo arrived in Vietnam three days before the Tet Offensive, he had a notion of what he was getting into, but would soon learn ideas are a far stretch from visceral experience.
"I fell into a hell-hole and got educated real quick," said Bylo, an Army veteran who served in the 2nd Battalion, 502nd Infantry Regiment, 101st Airborne Strike Force. "You got to get tougher or you're going to die."
Bylo didn't think of it as deploying for a tour of duty, but simply as serving his country. For Bylo and many veterans who served with him in the Vietnam war, their time in the military wasn't partitioned into deployments and stations. He had one station: Vietnam; and one mission: to kill as many Viet Cong as possible.
"The first time I killed someone, I couldn't eat for days," said Bylo, who earned a Bronze Star Medal with V for valor. "I was sick to my stomach, and it felt like months."
Bylo paid a price for that education. It wasn't a toll satisfied in cash - as most educations are today - but with a check written with painful memories and years characterized by post traumatic stress disorder.
Bylo experienced all the hate so famously projected onto veterans returning from serving their country in Vietnam, but it wasn't until years later that someone served him.
Eventually, Bylo made his way to a cabin just off the Deshka River in Southcentral Alaska, having found peace off the grid, away from the chaos of civilization, he said.
That's when he met Duke.
The papers may say Bylo adopted Duke, but he'll tell anyone who asks that Duke chose him. Duke came up seasonally with a couple of police officers who owned a cabin about a mile down the river from Bylo's own, he said.
Before long, Duke started making regular trips up to Bylo's cabin.
"He'd come right through those woods barreling like a bulldozer," Bylo said. "After six or seven times, that was the end of it, he didn't want nothing to do with anyone else."
Perhaps Duke was able to understand a need or maybe it was just innocent affection; regardless how or why, it wasn't long before Duke and Bylo were inseparable.
The two police officers who owned the cabin below him recognized the bond that had developed, and offered to let Bylo keep Duke - not that Duke was going to have it any other way.
Before long, Duke was serving Bylo as a full-time service dog, and the canine added some new tricks to his resume; he was able to dampen the effects of PTSD and allow Bylo to live as uninhibited as possible.
Each veteran has different needs, so their service dogs serve each of them differently, said Cathie Griffith, Shepherds for Lost Sheep, Inc. trainer and secretary.
SLS is a non-profit organization specialized in connecting service dogs with veterans.
"They can be taught to find a spouse if they are in trouble," Griffith said. "If they even make it to a mall, the dog can be taught to find their car or the spouse in the store. The dogs also block - put themselves between the veteran and other people approaching. Or maybe the dog will sit behind them in a line at the grocery store; that's 'watch my back.'
"It gives them more freedom for it to be like it was. It's never going to be the same, but this is the new normal for them. Some of the vets won't go into their own house without having the dog clear the room first."
Bylo can only get to his cabin when the Deshka River is frozen enough for him to ride a snowmachine, or when it's thawed enough to travel by boat. But when he needs medical care, he has to come to the 673d Medical Group for treatment, so the Fisher House of Alaska has served as Bylo's home away from home for those times when he needs treatment, but can't traverse the river.
"Ken has stayed at the Fisher House off and on for the last four years," said Jennifer Hall, Fisher House of Alaska manager. "Most of our guests who stay here know Ken and Duke. He's kind of a fixture around here."
Bylo doesn't have any relatives to call in times of need, or grandkids to brag about. It has always been just him and Duke. Bylo protected Duke like family too; if someone threatened Duke -- or he tells stories of others threatening Duke -- his entire demeanor changes.
"That's my kid," Bylo said. "I'm going to protect him."
In many ways, the Fisher House has adopted him - and Duke - as family, Hall said.
Because of that relationship with him, they noticed when Duke started to slow down last winter - even if Bylo wouldn't admit it.
Duke had tumors on his neck and ears.
"As the weeks went by, I could see he was slowing down," Bylo said. "I knew it was happening. The vet gave me some pills to kind of prolong it. I knew at six months, but I wouldn't admit it."
Concerned, Hall phoned up another veteran - for privacy considerations, let's call him "Dave" - and asked him to check on Bylo and Duke the following summer, she said.
"As the weeks went by, he started getting weaker and weaker," Bylo said in a raspy whisper. "Eventually I had to pick him up to get him in my truck."
"Then he stopped eating, so I had no choice. I pushed it right to the limit."
After offering years of companionship with a veteran who gave so much himself, Duke surrendered to his illness and passed away in July of 2015.
Dave stayed with Bylo through the process of losing Duke and the inevitable trip to the veterinarian. Then he stayed with Bylo afterward while he put Duke to rest.
"It was a really long, dragged-out process," Bylo said. "I couldn't believe how hard it was. It's hard for me to believe an animal could do that to a guy - man or woman."
Bylo wasn't doing well.
"Ice was coming on the river, and I kind of insisted that Ken come to the Fisher House," Hall said. "I don't believe, in my heart, he would have made it through the winter without Duke."
Hall said Bylo's pain was visible, so an Airman who helped him with his treatment at the hospital on Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson reached out to Shepherds for Lost Sheep, Inc.
"We have two categories that we make a top priority," said Larry Griffith, SLS trainer and treasurer. "A veteran who has had a service dog and, for whatever reason, that dog can no longer work for them or a therapist tells us a veteran needs a dog so he doesn't [hurt himself.]"
With support from the Airman who originally reached out to SLS, Hall and the Fisher House began working through the application process - and Bylo was accepted.
Having lost Duke, Bylo was eligible for a high-priority placement, and SLS quickly had a dog - Cowboy - trained and ready to meet Bylo; a gift with an estimated monetary value of $30,000. The only issue was Bylo wasn't ready to meet Cowboy.
Despite the pain of losing Duke, Bylo eventually agreed to meet the new dog, and SLS showed up with Cowboy, who immediately took to Bylo.
"We do a pretty good job of matching these things up," Larry said. "But ultimately, when the vet meets the dog, the dog is the one who decides if this is going to be OK or not."
Bylo wasn't convinced yet, but everyone watching knew it was going to work out, Hall said.
After meeting Cowboy, Bylo will spend 10 days working with him and developing a bond. During that time, the SLS trainers guide the process, ensuring the dog's - and veteran's - safety, and show Bylo what Cowboy is trained for.
Part of the process is going from store-to-store shopping, a process Bylo was a bit grumbly about.
Despite the grousing, Bylo's actions told a different story, and he soon began to dote on Cowboy.
Bylo said he felt like it would work out when he took Cowboy to get his ears cleaned and his toenails waxed. Then, after he found himself buying Cowboy a $100 memory foam bed, he knew he was stuck.
"I bought him the best bed I could find. It's a big bed," Bylo said.
Treatments for PTSD vary radically from person to person, but Bylo's many years of success with Duke and now Cowboy may indicate a different and effective approach to handling PTSD.
"I would say about two-thirds of the guys we give dogs to would look me in the eye and say their dog saved their life," Cathie said. "They were headed to a very dark place and were going to do something that they had no idea the ramifications of. But now they have this dog in their life."
"That dog doesn't eat unless they feed them. It gives them a different focus and a reason for not going there."
The SLS will continue to maintain contact with Bylo and support his budding relationship with Cowboy going forward. When Cowboy retires, SLS will provide Bylo with a new service animal, Cathie said.
When the ice melts, Bylo will find himself once again off the grid in the same woods, but now he has a new companion watching his back. Duke, retired nearby, can rest easy.