AUGUSTA — In June 2007, Sgt. Aaron Rollins got a hero’s welcome and a special ride home from New Jersey to join fellow Iraq veterans at a Freedom Salute ceremony in Bangor.

His family anxiously awaited. He had been in rehabilitation for the past six months at Fort Dix, N.J., for injuries suffered during his year in Iraq.

He was looking forward to spending time with his wife, their children and fellow members of Company B, 3rd Battalion, 172nd Infantry Regiment of the Maine Army National Guard.

Little more than four years later, he has lost his family and — at least temporarily — his home.

Rollins, of Madison, suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and other symptoms of battlefield injuries. He lives in his black Chevrolet Silverado pickup, moving it every couple of nights between the Walmart and Sam’s Club parking lots in Augusta.

He and his service dog, Mabel, a German shepherd/Lab mix, sleep in the back seat of the crew cab. His belongings are in plastic tubs in the truck bed.

Rollins said Mabel is what keeps him sane.

“When I got her, I started taking her places, and everybody saw a difference in me,” he said. “She’s really rescued me from PTSD, and I’m starting to get my life back.”

And while he prefers the company of Mabel, the dog prevents him from staying at a shelter for homeless veterans at VA Maine Healthcare Systems-Togus.

He stayed at the homeless veterans’ shelter several times, but he was told Mabel had to leave because of barking and the uneasiness her presence caused with some other residents. He slept on the floor of a friend’s shed for a while and then moved into his truck.

“I’ve been a hermit since ’07,” he said. “I just don’t want to be around people, and I avoid conflict. If you read books about PTSD, it’s all about being safe and being on a routine.”

It’s not how he pictured his life would be.

Wounded in action

Ten years ago, he was a shop steward with the local carpenter’s union, working on renovating the State House.

In 2004, he joined the Maine Army National Guard. After basic training, he worked with the honor guard and took part in about 90 funerals.

In 2005 — the year he married — he was deployed for a month to do relief work in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Later, he volunteered to join Bravo Company and arrived in Iraq in March 2006.

Rollins served as an infantry gunner and was wounded three times.

He was hurt in April 2006 when his unit came upon a road thought to be mined with improvised explosive devices. “We had to do some rough driving, and I was thrown out of the turret and back in,” he said.

Despite leg injuries, he refused an airlift out, saying he wanted to stay with his unit.

On May 6, 2006, a roadside device exploded, killing two members of his unit: Sgt. Dale James Kelly Jr., 48, of Richmond, and Sgt. David Michael Veverka, 25, from Jamestown, Pa., who had been a student at the University of Maine.

Rollins was among the soldiers who recovered Kelly’s remains.

“He was stuck under the truck and we had to get him out,” he said of Kelly.

Those memories are what Rollins said fuels his post-traumatic stress disorder.

Then, just a few weeks before its return home, his unit came under mortar rocket attack in Camp Adder.

“I heard some screaming and grabbed my medical bag, and I went around one of the concrete barriers,” Rollins said. “A Katyusha rocket went off and knocked me down.”

That attack left him with a traumatic brain injury.

Unhappy return

But while he survived combat, tumult would remain with him stateside.

On returning to the United States, Rollins was sent to Fort Dix for medical treatment, and remained there for six months. He met U.S. Sen. 0lympia Snowe, R-Maine, and credits her with intervening to get him transferred back to Maine.

He was released from military service in September 2009, and receives a pension for his permanent, 100 percent, service-connected disability.

He filed for divorce from his wife July 7, and the case is pending in Skowhegan District Court. Meanwhile, a court order keeps him from living at home and from having contact with her or her two children.

His wife says he threatened her, a claim Rollins denies.

He stayed a week at the shelter for homeless veterans at Togus in July, but left because he couldn’t complete paperwork that would allow Mabel, who he had certified as a service animal in January 2010, to remain there with him.

“She barks, and some people consider her a nuisance,” Rollins said. “I’ve never had any problems with her until this last stay. Somebody came up behind me and went to reach for my dog quickly, and she barked.

“She’s a sweet dog; she would never hurt anyone.”

Mabel’s presence helps him feel safer. “I can’t take crowds, especially without her,” Rollins said.

He declined an offer to remain at the Togus shelter if Mabel stayed in the truck.

“She’s a prosthetic device, the same as a wooden leg,” he said. “You wouldn’t ask a guy to get rid of his leg because someone is offended.”

Rollins said he adopted Mabel from a humane society shelter in December 2009 and trained her himself.

She barks to alert him that someone is approaching him too quickly or from behind. When Rollins shakes hands with a visitor to signal to Mabel that all is well, Mabel puts up a paw and a nose to try to participate. A photo ID with Mabel’s picture and Rollins’ name as owner hangs from her red leash.

In and out

Rollins said he likes the atmosphere at Togus. He gets a warm place to sleep and shower and three meals a day. He also gets to socialize with peers.

“It’s clean and neat and orderly and reminds me of being on a military post,” he said.

Then the issue of Mabel’s barking and other behavior arose.

Togus has a policy permitting service animals, but so far things haven’t worked out with Rollins and Mabel.

“If the animal has all the proper documentation and the proper behavior, we let veterans with service animals stay in the homeless shelter or the lodge,” said Brian Stiller, director of the VA center at Togus. “If all the requirements are not met, in some cases we arrange and pay (though goodwill donations) for them to stay at hotels that accept animals.

“I personally witnessed the animal’s tendency to get startled by social events,” Stiller said. “And I shared that I was a little nervous and concerned about everybody’s safety.”

Togus officials are barred from providing information about an individual veteran’s care there unless they sign a release. Rollins did so.

Rollins and Mabel stayed at Togus over the recent Columbus Day weekend because it would be empty until Monday, Stiller said.

However, when other veterans arrived, they expressed concern about being barked at and growled at by a dog not on a leash.

“The animal can’t create unsafe conditions or be disruptive,” Stiller said.

Stiller offered to put Mabel in a kennel so Rollins could focus on his care, but Rollins said no.

“We offered to purchase a hotel and did while he worked on his challenges,” Stiller said. “He checked out early, apparently.”

Rollins said he stayed at a downtown Augusta hotel for one night, but the noise from other people prevented him from sleeping.

“It was real quiet last night,” he said Wednesday after a stay in the Sam’s Club lot. “Just a couple of trucks in and out.”

At a loss

There have been no complaints about Mabel’s behavior during Rollins’ clinical appointments, Stiller said.

He also said he’s approached veterans service organizations to see if they can help get a trainer to work with Rollins and Mabel.

“I wish there was something I could do,” Stiller said. “I tried everything I could. There’s the risk to the agency and to him if she should have a bad day.”

Stiller did not shut the door on Rollins’ staying at Togus with the dog.

“We can try again,” Stiller said. “We’re here to help care for the veterans.”

Rollins isn’t sure.

“I thought Togus would take care of me.” he said. “I’m not the responsibility of the community at large. I’m the responsibility of Togus.”

It’s not that Rollins is broke; there’s just not enough money to pay for housing.

Rollins, 39, receives $3,100 a month in a disability pension from the Veterans Administration and an additional $530 per month from Social Security.

He pays a $900 mortgage on a house in Madison that he is banned from visiting, more than $500 in child support for his 15-year-old daughter in Rhode Island, his truck payment, insurance for both his truck and his estranged wife’s vehicle and fees for his divorce attorney.

After those bills are paid, he’s left with less than $500 for gasoline, prescriptions he can’t fill at Togus, and food.

Feeding Mabel comes first.

“She eats better than I do,” he said.

He tries to spend no more than $10 a day on his food, buying mostly canned goods.

Lately, breakfast is a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts and he tries to skip lunch.

He wears desert camouflage fatigue pants he wore in Iraq. This pair has a hole from a cigarette burn. And he leans on a black metal cane when he walks.

Rollins doesn’t know when or where he’ll shower next.

He has mediation in the divorce case next week. “Hopefully I’ll have some answers,” he said. “At some point, this will be over and Mabel and I can start a new life.”

He’s started a course through the state Department of Health & Human Services to become a licensed peer counselor. His goal is to be able to volunteer in a program that handles phone calls from veterans.

“I’m trying to move toward good things,” he said.

Betty Adams — 621-5631

[email protected]


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