Facing Life's Hardships with Resolve

This Women's History Month we’re sharing stories of our wonderful women graduates, volunteers, and staff. The story below originally appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of The VetDogs Sentinel, Vol. 11 No. 1, our newsletter. To sign up for The VetDogs Sentinel , please click here.

When Jo-Ann Rodriguez was young, she had one goal in mind: to join the military when she was old enough. With a family background steeped in military service – her great-grandfathers, grandfathers, and uncles served from World War II through Vietnam – it was no surprise that she would follow in their footsteps. 

Rodriguez was 11 years old when one of her brothers enlisted in the Coast Guard and the other in the Navy. Every time they came home on leave, “they told me all the stories of military life, and I was so happy to hear them,” she says. “That’s what made me enlist.” However, it wasn’t the Navy or the Coast Guard that enticed her, it was the Army. “I’ve loved the Army life since I was a little girl.” 

After high school, Rodriguez attended the Universidad del Sagrado Corazón of Puerto Rico, where she majored in communications and joined the Army’s ROTC program. (ROTC students maintain a regular college schedule while also taking courses specific to their future career as Army officers.) 

When she graduated in 1988, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant.

She remembers the first time she went home as an Army officer: “My brother had to salute me. He was enlisted, I was an officer. He didn’t like that,” she laughs. 

Rodriguez’s first assignment was at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama. While her first choice was the military occupational specialty that dealt with defense against weapons of mass destruction (including chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons), there were only a few spots available. 

Instead, she was offered the opportunity to become an ordnance officer. Her unit was responsible for ensuring that weapons systems were available and in working order when they were needed by troops on deployment during Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. 
In addition to Alabama, Rodriguez was also assigned to duty stations in Puerto Rico and Mississippi, in both the regular Army and the Army Reserves. 

The best laid plans… 
Rodriguez loved being in the Army. “It was an exciting career,” she says. “I did stuff that I wouldn’t do in my civilian life.” She planned to stay in the Army at least “until I was a colonel.” 

However, just a couple of years into her military service, she began experiencing numbness in her face and arms. “Suddenly, my body was getting tired and I was finding it difficult to walk and run,” she says.

She began to trip and fall. 

She was told by medics that she was having muscle spasms, but her symptoms continued to get worse. “I was starting to get so tired, and I couldn’t concentrate as well,” she says. Eventually, her ill health forced her to leave the service in 1991. 

Rodriguez returned home to her family in Puerto Rico. “It was a hard period,” she says. Without transition counseling to help her readjust to civilian life, she felt lost. 

The doctors at her local VA medical center told her the same thing as the Army physicians – that she was experiencing muscle spasms. 

Rodriguez’s mysterious symptoms often left her exhausted and unable to work. “It used to get me so tired that I couldn’t even lift one hand.” For the next three years, she existed in limbo. 

Finally, she saw a new doctor, who asked her if she was having vision problems, based on an eye exam. When Rodriguez said she wasn’t, the doctor ordered a CT scan and then an MRI. 

The MRI showed she had an autoimmune disease. “It was a relief, because I knew what it was,” she says; until her diagnosis, she had been afraid her symptoms were psychosomatic. 

Resilience and new directions 
When Rodriguez found out she could use her GI Bill benefits to study at home, she felt energized with new purpose and went on to get her master’s degree in graphic design and digital effects. For a while, she volunteered for the Paralyzed Veterans Association, designing their newsletter and doing other desktop publishing. 

One of the things Rodriguez had always prided herself on was her physical prowess during her Army days. “I used to be a good runner, and I was good at sports,” she says. Although she can walk short distances, her disease has affected her mobility to the point where she uses a wheelchair most of the time. 

Then she discovered wheelchair sports, especially wheelchair basketball, which became her favorite. “I used to play for the national team for Puerto Rico,” she says. “I was the only female on the team for about 10 years,” before two other women joined the team; she continued playing for another several years. 

Rodriguez has also competed in wheelchair softball, and track and field events such as discus, javelin, and shot put, where she often placed first in her events in the masters category at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. 

A long-awaited partner 
Rodriguez wanted a service dog shortly after she became disabled, but it took almost 15 years before she finally got one. The biggest stumbling block she found, was that “no one would give [a service dog] to someone in Puerto Rico.” After 10 years of trying, she gave up for a while. 

One day, while doing research for a project, Rodriguez saw a news story about America’s VetDogs. She went to the VetDogs website and began reading everything she could. 

“I called and talked to Consumer Services,” she says, “and explained that I lived in Puerto Rico and wanted to get a service dog.” Within 15 to 20 minutes, she recalls, “I got a call back and was told to go ahead and apply.” Three days later, she had sent back the completed application. 

Once Rodriguez had been accepted, she was put on the waiting list as VetDogs searched for the right dog for her, training it to do the tasks she needed. And even though she had been trying for 15 years, the 18 months she had to wait to be invited to class “was like the longest period.” 

In June 2017, Rodriguez arrived at the VetDogs campus in Smithtown and was partnered with service dog Hickok. The dog has been trained to perform tasks such as retrieving items, opening doors, and providing bracing and counterbalance when she walks. 

Back on track 
Hickok has become a full member of her family, and he goes everywhere with Rodriguez. When they are together at doctors’ appointments at the VA, Rodriguez often engages with other veterans and answers their questions about service dogs. She’s even encouraged a friend and fellow veteran to apply for a service dog of his own. 

“Hickok has given me his unconditional love and brought happiness back to my life. I don’t have a reason to be sad,” she says.