Virginia Marine says goodbye to the dog that saved his life: 'He helped me heal'

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Posted at 11:44 AM, Feb 02, 2023

SPOTSYLVANIA COUNTY, Va. -- Retired U.S. Marine Jason Haag counts his blessing daily. Deployed to war zones three times in seven years, Haag served two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan.

"The first time I got shot at my life changed forever. 100%,” Haag said. “Nothing will ever compare to what we went through over there."

The veteran from Spotsylvania, Virginia was hit with machine gunfire and IEDs on separate occasions.

Haag survived his time overseas, but back home, hidden scars cut deep and unraveled the 42-year-old father’s life.

"After I was retired it went downhill real fast. I isolated myself in the basement. I couldn’t go to the 7-Eleven down the street to get a pack of gum,” he said. “Loud noises. Large crowds. Those types of things. Nightmares were awful. I was drinking 36 beers a night to make sure I could close my eyes."

Eleven years ago Haag found salvation at the end of a leash.

Haag met Axel in September 2012. The German Shepherd was discovered at a shelter in Florida.

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“I had tried everything at that point. Talk therapy. Group therapy. And acupuncture. The whole nine yards,” Haag said.

The Marine was skeptical of a canine companion at first. Their bond however was soon cemented.

“I looked over at Axel and he looked at me and raised one eyebrow. And at that point, I knew we were going to be alright. I owe that dog my life,” he said.

In 2017 Haag founded Leashes of Valor. The non-profit pairs service dogs with veterans living with PTSD. His pup is the group’s furry ambassador.

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“Axel has been there through the absolute very beginning through all of this and Leashes of Valor. He is the reason why we’ve been so successful in my opinion,” Haag said.

In six years, Leashes of Valor has helped 28 veterans find a lifeline on four paws.

“One leash saves two lives. That is our whole mantra,” Haag said. “If we can rescue dogs out of the shelter we absolutely will.”

But recently, Haag noticed his companion was slowing down. Father Time was finally catching up to Axel.

“He made me a better person. He made me a better man. He made me a better leader. He made me a better father,” Haag said.

With a decade of loyalty under his collar, Axel retired. Still, Haag could depend on his best friend.

“He never wavered. He always got in the truck. He went wherever I went,” Haag said.

A few days ago, Haag and his family made the difficult decision to say “goodbye.”

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“We knew it was coming. I think that is why he waited so long to make sure that I was in a good place,” Haag said.

Haag tried clutching onto more than just Axel’s collar.

“I’m glad I have that and can hold something tangible I’m really afraid because my memory is so bad that I’ll start losing that and that sucks,” he said.

Haag promises Leashes of Valor will endure as will the memory of his guardian angel.

“Axel will be looking over my shoulder until I am no longer on this earth. That I am sure of,” he said.

The shepherd's mission may be complete, but the legacy of this Marine’s beloved pooch lives on in the puppies and dogs who are ready to serve and save.

"This is what we do. This is why we do it. To make sure someone else will have a leash in their hand with a dog just like Axel," Haag said. "And that is what it is all about in the end. He helped me heal. He helped me care again.”

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