On this episode we talk with client and veteran Clif who talks about his journey with blindness and receiving a guide dog via home delivery.
What is Taking the Lead ?
Leader Dogs for the Blind empowers people who are blind or visually impaired with the tools for safe and independent daily travel. Our goal is to educate, advocate, and share real life experiences of those with blindness. Come learn, laugh, and grow with us.
Christina: [00:00:00] Welcome to the Taking the Lead podcast where we empower people to be unstoppable. I'm Christina Hoeppner with my co-host Leslie Haskins and Timothy Kuo. All right, this past weekend. I, um, have had this plan for a while. I did a 5K for the Arthritis Foundation. Um, I've talked about it a little bit on the podcast before cuz I have rheumatoid arthritis and so, um, they do this Jingle Bell 5k.
I had signed up months ago. My whole family signed up and of course it was under 20 degrees in the morning. So ran a 5K in like 20 degree weather with snow and ice on the. . And honestly it was very hard, but like I did all right. For having to run on ice.
Leslie: Did you wear what, like yak tracks? That's what we wear when we're out working with o and m clients.
Christina: Nope. Tennis shoes. Well, because they said that the track would be like cleared off. Yeah. Um, it was not [00:01:00] scary. Yeah, it's scary. Um, but like where it was, IC was uphill, so it actually kind of helped. A little bit because you weren't like sliding, you were like gripping onto it, if that makes any sense.
Leslie: It doesn't.
It feels like it'd be the opposite. . Well, it was. Nobody fell.
Christina: Nobody fell. Which is great. I mean, some people finished real fast. I mean, I had like a 28 time, which I thought was, I'm not a runner. So I thought that was all right. You know, for my first five k since having like knee surgery a few years ago. I was like, right, I'll take it.
Leslie: So did you all run together, you and your family or did you leave each other in the
Christina: desk? No, so I did the timed 5K and then they did the fun run. So that was only a mile and a half. Um, and they, that one you walk or you run and I think like my parents kind of walked jogged and then my sister and my brother-in-law, um, jogged that one.
Timothy: I like the sounds of walking, no running. It would take me three, it would take me an hour to run five Ks.
Christina: I had so many layers [00:02:00] on you guys. I had like two pairs of pants, two pairs of socks, three shirts and a jacket like gloves. Ear Mo,
Leslie: so while you were doing this out in the freezing cold, my husband was getting our fireplace up and running and we were just cozy down up in our house.
We put up our Christmas decorations, got the tree up, just all snugly warm.
Christina: That sounds great too. You know, we very different path for our weekends.
Leslie: Timothy, what'd you do this weekend?
Timothy: All I did was watch football. Oh, what a weekend in college football. It was, let me tell you, it was upset weekend and my team won and so it was, I stayed, I stayed warm underneath the blanket with a cat beside me and the dog beside me.
So, It was a great weekend just to watch football.
Christina: Timothy, what was the weather down there in Georgia? I'm just curious. Well,
Cliff: it, this
Timothy: morning it's 28 degrees. So
Cliff: cold. Okay, so it is cold.
Timothy: Yes, it's cold down here, but it's supposed to be 68 on Thanksgiving. [00:03:00] So well, uh, looking forward to
Christina: that . That will be nice.
Leslie: snow here. Yeah. We didn't get as much as the west side of the state, but the west side of the state, my um, brother and sister-in-law and nieces live over there and they got like over a foot of snow. Yeah. They just kept sending photos and we're like, what in the crazy? Well, at least
Timothy: you don't live in Buffalo.
I heard some places in Canada, 80 inches, 80 inches.
Leslie: Christina's just crying. Still out there running. She's just like Seef Pat, you'll see me running through this though.
Christina: Just an imprint of her body. Hey, I mean I am running our Litter Dog event, the frozen Paul 5k in January, so good
Leslie: for you. I'll be at the end with some hot chocolate.
Thank you. I'll be sitting
Timothy: on my couch as you're running, so you go for it.
Leslie: I like it. We each choose a different path. Timothy and I, a little bit more relaxed and laid back. Christina's on the go all the time. Well, she's 30, so she can do that. Oh my gosh. Right. She's so young. . I told her, [00:04:00] I referred to Christina and I as the same age the other day,
Christina: and I was like, are
Leslie: you joking?
And she was like, excuse me. And I'm like, you're in the, you're in the box, right? Like you check the box from like you're in your twentie. Or you're in your thirties or you're in your forties. Christina is now in her thirties with me.
Christina: Yeah. But I was like, wait a minute, are you trying to age me? Oh my
I'm only five years
Christina: older. I know, I know. I'm just joking. I just think it's
Leslie: funny. . Unbelievable. Check the box. Christina, you gotta move on.
Christina: All right, fine.
Leslie: So exciting. Well, today we are really excited cuz we have a wonderful guest on to share about his experience. He is a veteran in the US Army and we're so delighted to have him here today.
Christina: Yes, cliff grew up in Versaces, Kentucky and joined the Army right out of high school in 2003. He was in the military, police and protected services and served in. For over a year, he protected General Casey, Donald Rumsfeld, condole [00:05:00] Rice, and the Prime Minister during his time overseas. Cliff returned to the US in July of 2006 and slowly began losing his vision.
He received services through the VA and connected with the leader dog earlier this year. Cliff, thank you for your service.
Timothy: Yes, cliff. Thank you for your service. And, uh, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself outside the military and why did you join the.
Cliff: Absolutely. Well, first of all, thank you guys for having me.
It's a pleasure and honor to be on here with you today. Um, yeah, so, uh, growing up I was, I had perfect eyesight, didn't, I didn't have any medical problems like at all. So, um, I played sports year round in high school. Um, I was really on the. About whether or not I was gonna try and play sports in college or if I was gonna just go ahead and join the [00:06:00] military, because again, that was something that I had always wanted to do as well.
Um, and my dad is a huge, well, was a huge military buff. So we grew up in a military friendly home and anytime we saw a veteran or anyone out, um, we always thanked them for their service. And so, you know, growing up like that with that amount of respect for other veterans, I was like, man, you know, I think I might actually join the military instead of going play in sports in college.
Cause that was a. Dream of mine as well, but I also had the opportunity to do that. But then nine 11 obviously happened. Um, and I was, I was actually in shop class when that happened, uh, my, uh, junior year of high school. And when that happened, my whole family's marines except for me, I'm the only one that joined the army.
My great-grandfather was in the Army and he transferred into the Marine Corps. So I'm [00:07:00] like the only. So holidays are fun. They get to pick at me and everything, so it's all good. Um, but so I was like, yeah, I'm definitely joining. I told my mom, I told my dad, I was like, Hey, I'm joining. And my mom goes and grabs the boxes, like scholarships and stuff, and she's like, you're just gonna throw this away.
And I said, mom, it's what I wanna do. And I said, I want to do, I was like, well, you guys sign for me to, you know, Enlist early, and they're like, absolutely not. You know, you're gonna, you're, you're gonna think about this the rest of the time you're in high school. And I was like, okay. So the day I turned 18 , I, uh, I skipped high school and went and joined the military.
And then I came back early to the house and my dad was like, what are you doing home so early? And I threw down the, the packet . And he was like, oh no. He was like, you're telling your momma I ain't telling. And I was like, well, I don't wanna tell her. He was like, well, you really wanna join. You have to. And I was like, all right.
[00:08:00] But my dad always had this saying for me too. He said that, um, he said, boy, you sure are getting smart by being stupid . And, uh, so, so that's, that's kinda my motto, really. I'm gonna guess. I mean, everybody that sees me like, man, what'd you do that for? I'm like, well, I've never done it before. I wanted to see what it felt.
And they're like, there's something wrong with you man. And they're like, I can't help it. I gotta see what it's all about. I'm not gonna knock it until I try it. So, yeah. But I, I, I, I listened to the military police cuz I, I, I always wanted to be a police officer too. Um, it was funny because when I was in high school, I actually did an explorer program with the fire department.
Oh, very cool. For the police department and one for the fire department. Yeah. So Cliff, and even though I wanted to be, Oh, go ahead.
Christina: Oh, no, I was just saying, you know, you, you went into the military, you went to be military police. Um, you know, in your bio we mentioned some of those big names of people that you were responsible for keeping safe.
So how did [00:09:00] that even happen? How did you get into that position?
Cliff: It's a long story, but I, um, we, we were coming up time for an employ. For a deployment and we didn't really know what was going on yet, and I got a phone call from my platoon sergeant and he says, what are you doing? I said, I'm just having a drink watching.
Watching some sports. And he said, oh, he said, well, I got got a question for you. And I said, sure. He said, do you wanna volunteer to go to Iraq or do you wanna uh, be selected ? And I was like, well, I guess I'll volunteer if that's my options. And, uh, so volunteered for that. And then they actually, we were in the middle of doing our, uh, training for our deployment and then we got the phone call saying, This is what you guys are doing.
You're gonna go to Protective Services School, and then when you graduate there, we're gonna, um, start putting you in slots [00:10:00] overseas to protect, uh, any v i p military or civilian and, um, So we were like, oh, cool. You know, we always heard about Protective Services School, being in military police, but ever all of our instructors and everybody was like, don't even try and look over the fence.
You're never gonna get to do that, ever. They said, you know, we've been trying for years and years to get in and I just happened to be, I just got lucky with that, with being in protective services. Um, so we had about a hundred people, about a hundred and some, uh, soldiers, and they, they ended up taking 32 of us.
Um, And then we went ahead and we did really well in protective services school. And then they said, Hey, you know, you guys have done really well. We, we put some good words in for you. Your first, your first VIP is you're gonna be protecting the command in general with the Iraq war. And we're like, say what now?
Are you serious ? And they're like, oh yeah. And we're like four star. And I'm [00:11:00] like, oh yeah. Yep. And I was like, man, four star runner off the bat, like not even abar colonel or. Goodness. So I was pretty nervous. I was, oh, I was super nervous. Um, but I already had like my EMT certification and stuff from that explorer program I was talking about.
So when we, we had to go do verbal interviews with, with him one on one and then they sent us back to Kuwait cuz we were still climatizing is what they would call it. And uh, was just trying to get used to sweating all the time. That's a lot. Oh gosh.
Cliff: incredible. And so we went, yeah. So he, so yeah, that's a journey.
You know, we. Yeah, well, you know, the next day and the next day I found out that I was gonna be the alternate shift leader for him. And the, the PSO was the guy that's like always like right behind that v i p you see on TV all the time with a celebrity or the president or anything like that. [00:12:00] I
Leslie: have already started thinking about my holiday shopping, and one thing on my list is getting gifts from Leader Dogs for the blind gift
That's great, and guess what, you're in luck because for the month of November and December, if you use code taking the lead, you'll get free shipping. But remember, you can only use one code per order. This is
Leslie: amazing news. I am heading to leader dog.org and clicking shop right now.
This is all really interesting and there's so much going on, and I know you could talk forever about all of this, which is incredible. And I think it's so honorable how you joined the military and like what a big decision you had. You know, did you wanna play sports in college or did you wanna kinda take this route?
And then, you know, you mentioned nine 11 really was a huge impact for you in making that decision. So first of all, again, thank you for your time and your service in the. I'm curious, can you tell us a little bit about, so you were overseas and you said you didn't have any medical issues or anything like that going into it.
How did [00:13:00] then you lose your vision? Was there something that happened while you were over there or was that when you returned back to the US?
Cliff: Yeah, so I was in what they call a hard landing in a helicopter where were, we always flew doors open, um, cuz we had to get out and catch up with the boss man super quick.
So we always floored, flew doors open. Um, I was strapped in. We're like, Hey, we're getting ready to, uh, we're gonna do a touch and go. We're gonna touch you. Get out and just all but try and catch him. And so as we were coming down, they just lost control a little bit and I was already stepping out as the helicopter slammed into the ground.
So it kind of like made me do, I was like in a, a human accord. And then it just kind of shot me, shot me straight out, and I just tumbled and tumbled and tumbled and it knocked me out. And, um, I didn't really notice any, like, major problems at first with it either. Um, but. [00:14:00] So I went to the doctor there, um, the little tent they had set up and he's like, oh, you just got your belt wrong.
You're okay. And he taps me on the back of the head and I'm like, you good to go? I got, I got a headache. What was that for? You know, don't do that. And, uh, he's like, no, you're good. Here's some pain medication. Here's some muscle relaxers and I'm a drain your leg. And I said, okay. And yeah, so I'm good to go.
He's like, you're good to. I get back to my detachment and they said, Hey, you know, we're gonna put you on light duty for a couple weeks. So instead of being, instead of protecting the commander General, I was driving in everywhere and I was like, I hate this . Cause I was in five to six different cities a day.
And so I was used to being on the move and it was just so slow and I was so boring. It was so boring, and uh, but luckily he did not like me as a driver, so that worked out really well.
Leslie: then while you're continuing your tour there, did you have any vision problems or everything was [00:15:00] good until you kind of returned?
Cliff: know, I did, but I, I didn't put two and two together because I kept, when I kept going back from my follow up, the doctor kept saying, you're good, you're good. Well, when I was driving the Commander General, I would, I would hit like a sandbag or something every once in a while. I'm like, where the heck was that even at?
They're like, dude, it was right in front of you. Wow. I was like, I did not do that. And then so we were backing out of this facility one day and there was. It was like a zigzag, you had to back up in a zigzag. It had, you know, formations of sandbags and rocks. And so I made it all the way through and at the very end it was the lower part again.
And I hit it and I was like, man, I backed all the way out and hit that little D thing. I didn't even see it. So I got into it with the commanded journalist aid and we had some words, and then he made me drive in reverse for, um, three hours, one. Oh my gosh. And I [00:16:00] did fine with it because you know the big concrete key barriers for like road construction and stuff like that, well, those were high enough to where I could see it.
So I still didn't think anything of the other stuff. So I just drove and reversed for three hours and he is like, okay, you're good. Oh my. And then we go back out and I hit another sandbag.
Christina: I hit another
Leslie: one. So you were starting to notice a few little things. Like this is getting kind of weird. Why are these things popping out?
I'm not noticing 'em. So bring us back. Then you get home to the us. What happens there? We just kind of wanna hear a little bit about how you found out about your vision loss and then like what was the progression? Where did you receive services? How did you get involved in
Cliff: all of that? Okay. Um, yeah, so I get back and, you know, we have to do our post deployment physicals.
And so the doctor looks me over and he was like, he's like, you know, you have a couple fractures in your legs, right? And I was like, no, I didn't know that. And he said, well, he said, How often does [00:17:00] your knee look like that? And I was like, well, it does it all the time. It kind of slips in and out. Um, so I pa I, I totally failed my physical and then I went for the eyesight part of it.
My eyesight was still perfect. My eyes are totally healthy. There's nothing wrong with my eyes at all. But from the tbi, it, um, mess with, well, I guess the, um, oh no, your optic nerves, I think of the, thank you, the optic nerve. And, um, so they're like, Hey, if you're gonna get your vision back, it's gonna be within three months.
Three months happen, nothing. And I, and over the course of this time, I kept tripping and falling over stuff. And so I had just the very bottom part of my vision gone. That was it. And so I was adapting to it and, you know, doing some services and stuff through the VA to help with that. The vest coordinator and then, um, moved into the other house and I tripped over a dog gate that I didn't see.
And when I did that, I flipped over the rail [00:18:00] into the basement and I fell all the way down, smacked my face right on the concrete. Um, I couldn't figure out how to use my phone. Um, and then luckily, you know, I just did, um, if you hit it hard enough, it actually calls for you. And so, um, I was trying, I was trying to figure all that out, mom.
My. My ex mother-in-law, she's, um, she's, we're still really good friends. She, she's my primary caretaker. She came over and, and was like, you know, found me. And she's like, oh my God. So she threw me in the car and I don't remember the car ride or nothing. And then after that point, they, once I kind of came to, I was like, Hey.
I was like, when can you take this crap off my face? And they're like, what are you talking about? And I was like, you know, I can't see you guys. I wanna take this off my face. And they. There's nothing on your face. And I said, there's nothing covering my eyes. And I was trying to touch 'em and they were like, there's nothing there.
And I was like, oh no. [00:19:00] And so I stood up real quick and started panicking immediately. Yeah. And I was like, oh no, this is not good. And I was like, is this gonna come back? And they said, we don't think so. Wow. And, uh, so I go to Birmingham From there, the Lexington VA sends me to Birmingham and Birmingham's actually where I, where I met my, my brother , Barry Stafford
Everybody thinks everybody thought we were brothers. We're we're really good friends. He calls me PJ and uh, and
Leslie: Barry Stafford, just for our listeners, is a certified orientation and mobility specialist who at that time was working at the the Birmingham va.
Cliff: And so I was lucky enough to get him and I could still have still had, you know, that upper part of my vision.
And so they gave me these prisms and I was kind of playing around with 'em and I was like, oh, you got a beard. Look, I. And he was like, oh yeah. And uh, so everywhere we went, everybody was like, where's your brother? Where's your brother? Where's your brother? Yes. And like the local [00:20:00] businesses and stuff. But yeah, so he was my OM instructor and he was, he was fantastic.
Yeah. Um, we had a ball together. He's, he's made me pins and necklaces type stuff out of five 50 core, all sorts of stuff. That's, and you know, of course we'll make stuff for him too, but we've kept in contact this whole time. Yeah. So Cliff,
Timothy: So Cliff, when you decided to get a dog from Leader Dog, did you go on campus or did you have a home delivery?
Cliff: I had a home delivery, which was great for me. Um, I have severe PTSD as well, um, from service and um, there was four years I didn't leave my. So, you know, it, it really affected me a lot and cuz my previous service dog had passed away.
He was a psychiatric service dog. Um, and he made things better. You know, I could go out and do [00:22:00] some things. Not a whole lot. Can't be around kids. Kids, kids make me get really sick. I'd start. Vomiting and all sorts of stuff, but it's nasty. Um, just from some stuff that happened overseas. And so it's hard for me to get out, but you know, once I.
So Jessica came here, Jessica Bierman. She was my, um, instructor. I call her my drill instructor. She, she drill, she, she, she, she had me doing all sorts of drills and cadence cadences. No, I'm just messing with you. She's great. She, um, she, she's so much fun. And I told Barry, I said, yeah, I think, uh, Jessica's coming.
And he was like, oh dude, that's perfect for you, . And I was like, yeah. And he was like, yeah, it's perfect. I was like, okay. So, and we, we got along from the minute she came in, she was wonderful. She was super nice, super knowledgeable. Um, she had actually worked with, you know, other dogs in the past for other reasons and mm-hmm.
and I was telling her about my other service dog. And [00:23:00] so we, um, we did it in our, in my environment and she said, I want to see, I want, I wanna go places that you normally go. And I wanna go places that you haven't gone to because you haven't had the confidence to do so. And so we did that and my confidence just kept building and building.
I was very surprised. And Spin was amazing. He, through the whole thing, he was like, Hey, you can't go that way. We're going this place . And I'm like, I wanna go this way. And he is like, we can't do that . So it was pretty cool. I mean we, me and Spin, it took us by the second, the third day we were pretty. and um, I called Jessica and I said, Jessica, I'm having some PTSD problems.
You know, I'm really, I'm having anxiety attacks. I'm having intrusive thoughts, you know, I'm really struggling. And so when I did that, then came over to me and held my legs and would not leave me. Mm-hmm. . And so when she got there, she was like, [00:24:00] oh my God. She's like, how long has he been doing that? I said, ever since I got worked up, he will not leave.
And she's like, are you serious? I said, I'm serious, watch. And I got up and I moved and he followed right over to me. And then, um, he got all my legs again and wrapped his legs around my legs and then put his head on my feet. And he just kept doing that and he hadn't done that before. Oh. And, and so now when I have anxiety problems and stuff like that, that's what he does.
And it. Isn't that crazy? Like yeah,
Christina: that's amazing.
Cliff: Not leaving in four years to getting out and doing kind of whatever I wanted. Really?
Christina: Yeah. Cliff, that is amazing to hear. And it's crazy cuz sometimes our dogs, you know, our dogs are not trained that way. They're not trained to do those things. But you can really show that the connection, um, Our dogs can have with their human is just unparalleled.
It's amazing to hear that. And I know we're getting really close to the end of our time, cuz I know we could probably talk for [00:25:00] hours, but Oh gosh.
Cliff: I could go and go .
Christina: Is there any last, um, things that you wanna say about having, you know, your first guide dog us haven't been together even for that long.
Really? What did, what, you know, you had such that instant connection in the beginning. What's it like right now to be out and doing things?
Cliff: It's very bizarre. Like I haven't really totally came around to it yet. Like, you know, like just in shock. Um, like I, I went to a fundraiser for a leader dog, um, with the Lions Club and I went and spoke there, gave a speech there and everything.
And, uh, there's no way that I would've been there if I hadn't had sin. There's no way. I would've never. Cuz I do, I don't do crowds at all. And I was totally, I was totally fine with him there. There was nothing, nothing went wrong. Everything went great. I made it like a whole little standup comedy spill and, you know, everybody thought it was good.
So that was
Leslie: good they did. [00:26:00] Cuz then I was immediately getting emails like, Hey, can you get, can somebody collect, uh, connect me with Cliff? I want him to join me here. I want him to do this. So you obviously did a great job at sharing your story. Um, and of course the Leader Dog mission too. So thank you for that.
Yeah. As well as thank you for your service, honestly. Your story's incredible. Oh, thank you. Um, and I'm so happy that you found Barry and then Jessica, two amazing leader dog team members that we are so fortunate to have as well. So thank you again for everything. Thank you for joining us today. We certainly appreciate
Well, hey, I appreciate you guys and everything that you do and getting the word out. Uh, my life will never be the same now in, in a good way. Um, I, I look forward to some things that I haven't done before, which. You know, looking forward to something isn't something I normally do, so it's just, even just that is amazing.
So I'm super grateful for everything that you guys do, and
Leslie: thank you so much to our listeners for listening to the Taking the Lead [00:27:00] podcast. I'm Leslie Hoskins with host Timothy cuo and Christina Hoeppner. We hope you enjoyed learning about Cliff's experiences. Please join us next week as we continue to dive into the world of
And if you'd like to learn more about applying to our to Leader dog for our free services, you can head to leader dog.org or call us at (888) 777-5332. And don't forget, you can reach us at taking the firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or ideas. If you like today's podcast, make sure to hit subscribe and check us out wherever podcast.