Those who see Nick Zanella and his treeing Walker coonhound, Joshua, walking through their Modesto neighborhood twice a day might never know how that simple act is actually a sign of healing — for both of them.
“He’s been through so much, I just try to let him see the goodness that’s in the world now,” Rebecca Zanella said of her husband. “I try to tell him, there is still good in the world, you just have to accept it.”
After 12 years in the Army — six of them overseas away from his family — and two tours in Iraq, trust and acceptance don’t come easy to the 32-year-old Army sergeant.
“It’s hard for me to open up to someone new and trust,” Nick said.
Nick graduated from high school in 1999 and went right into the Army.
“High school was ending and I really didn’t have the money to go to college or anything,” Nick said. “I joined right out of high school, so I definitely got discipline, motivation and really my greatest asset, my leadership (skill).”
Nick said he was put in charge of soldiers from his earliest days in the military, eventually rising to the rank of sergeant in charge of supplying Army units.
“My first unit, I was with was the Apaches (attack helicopters), ordering parts and supplies for them. Then I went to ground forces when I was at Fort Irwin. Like tanks and Humvees.”
Army life changed on Sept. 11, 2001.
“The whole way we did things in the Army changed from there,” Nick said. “Not so much an army but terrorists we were fighting. Individuals instead of a big uniformed army.”
Nick was first deployed to Iraq on Jan. 1, 2005 — 21 days after the birth of his first son with Rebecca.
“I started going out maybe once a week, twice a week, out on like a 12-hour patrol or something.”
Nick and his unit patrolled the same sector but always took different routes through the Iraqi neighborhoods they were responsible to protect.
“We would do mounted patrols and drive through,” Nick said. “We would dismount and walk around, and sometimes if little kids come up, you get the opportunity to play with them. But it was kind of hard, too, because you have to be careful, because you don’t want them to get in trouble or something by someone else watching.”
That was the beginning of a seismic change in the way Nick saw the world.
He says he saw his first combat eight months into his deployment. He won’t talk about what he experienced, and that fact is still shaping his world nine years later.
“I haven’t claimed my (post-traumatic stress disorder). I’m diagnosed with it but I haven’t done my claim, because honestly, for my claim, I have to put in details as stuff about my combat experience, and I’m not ready,” Nick said. “I’m not working and I do get compensation, but very little, from the V.A. So honestly, it’s like money I’m not getting that I could be getting. I have a doctor’s diagnosis. I have everything for me to get that, but I just can’t do it yet.”
A report released Jan. 3 by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs concluded that as many as 18 percent of all veterans of combat in Iraq and Afghanistan came home with PTSD. The study found that a quarter of the more than 1 million men and women who are eligible for Veterans Affairs care have been diagnosed with a mental health problem.
Rebecca said Nick was a changed man when he came home from his first deployment. He deployed a second time, and when he was honorably discharged from the Army in May 2011, he went right into work that kept him away from his family.
“I got out of the Army and I got a job. I didn’t stop working,” Nick said. “I just kind of threw myself into work again. I was working 10- to 12-hour days. Five days, sometimes six days, a week. I guess it just masked my PTSD.”
That mask didn’t stay in place long.
“I started struggling with my PTSD coming out. Angry, irritable. I would think people were out to get me at work. I was being kind of paranoid, misinterpreting conversations,” he said. “I got laid off. My performance had been slipping. After that happened, I just spiraled out of control. I lost everything. We moved back to Modesto, in with my mother-in-law.”
Rebecca said the past year had been a dark time for her family.
“It wasn’t until he got out of the Army and lost his other job that everything kicked in with him. The PTSD, the depression, the anxiety. It was like it wasn’t even him anymore,” Rebecca said. “It was very tough to see.”
Nick, Rebecca and their three children got help with a home of their own through the Housing and Urban Development-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing program.
Nick began to get counseling at the Modesto Vet Center but wasn’t making much progress. He no longer enjoys the things he liked before the Army and now drinks two or three energy drinks a day just to feel normal.
“I have to maintain that. It’s like a constant adrenaline surge, you know. I’m trying to get that feeling again. It’s like control, I guess you would say. When I’m at that point I’m focused, and it’s about always being ready and alert. Like being at my peak. I guess I always seek that, trying to be mentally and physically ready for something,” Nick said, half-laughing. “Honestly, I don’t know what I’m waiting for, you know.”
He had heard that having a dog around might be therapeutic, and that’s when Joshua came into the Zanellas’ lives. Nick read an article about the treeing Walker coonhound who was in the care of East of Eden, a Tracy-based animal rescue.
Joshua had not been able to find a home because he suffered severe separation anxiety and acted out whenever he was left alone.
“When he showed me the article for Joshua, I told him, that’s a perfect fit,” Rebecca said. “You need somebody that going to be there with you constantly and he needs somebody that’s going to be with him constantly.”
Nick realized they could help each other.
“When it said he suffered from separation anxiety, he wasn’t shown as much love as he should have been, I realized that’s what I’m looking for. I can provide that for him, and he can help me out as well,” Nick said.
The family adopted Joshua immediately, and Nick said that in the three weeks since, he’s finally had a few good nights’ sleep.
“(I was) always being on edge, always being on guard, being watchful and stuff. With Joshua, he’s alert. He can bark or whatever. He just gives me that sense of security that I can be at ease.”
That sense of security extends to simple walks through his neighborhood, walks that Nick had never felt comfortable taking, because he didn’t have anyone watching his six.
“We bonded pretty much instantly, me and Joshua,” Nick said. “When we’re out walking and we stop, he’ll sit down right by my side, and if I’m looking forward, he’ll look behind me. That’s nothing I trained him to do. He just does it. It’s kind of like a bond like that.”
Rebecca said she had already seen a change in her husband.
“He’s more active now. He goes out on walks, him and Joshua. They get out and go together on their walks twice a day. They play outside and in the house.”
Nick has been working on Joshua’s separation anxiety, stepping outside for a few minutes without the dog and allowing him to see that he will come back. Rebecca said the attention from Nick has already helped Joshua start overcoming the issue that kept him from being adopted before.
“He (used to) just freak out when Nick went to the store or takes one of the kids somewhere — he ran back and forth through the house pacing and whining and looking out through the window,” she said. “The other day when (Nick) left with my brother to go to the store, Joshua didn’t even move. He just laid on his bed. He got up and looked out the window for a second, then laid back down.”
Nick said his goal was to get Joshua to a point where he can stay alone comfortably in the family home.
The former Army sergeant and his wife said things are still tough for their family — Nick is still unemployed, has only about 10 percent use of his knees and didn’t get the small support check from the V.A. this month — but they are hopeful once more.
“I’m just trying to get healthy so I can get back on my feet and probably go to school,” said Nick, who can still take advantage of his GI Bill to pay for college.
“With him always being alert and the PTSD, we were like, ‘Oh, nobody set him off’ — it was always really scary,” Rebecca said. “But having (Joshua) here now has kind of evened things out. He’s made us all happy.
“It’s all worth it now finally. The kids have him back, and we finally are a family after all these years. I wouldn’t trade any of it for the world, but I wish things would have been different. I’m just glad things are coming together now. We’re seeing a lot more happiness in our family than we did before.”
• Contact Michael Ellis Langley at email@example.com or 830-4231.