Veteran Reid Erickson can live with more independence because of the care, nurture and skills of his service dog Milton.
Milton has gained a reputation of "melting hearts" when people meet the sweet golden retriever.
Erickson, 36, retired from the military in August 2014. He experienced a traumatic brain injury when he broke his neck after being near an explosion in Afghanistan. Today he lives 100 percent disabled and experiences frequent blackouts.
Erickson prefers to stay home and not venture out much since he experiences flashbacks, all part of his PTSD symptoms and psychological effects of witnessing the violence and death that accompany war.
As a Lakeville native, Erickson recently moved back to Minnesota. He and his wife were awarded a foreclosed house in Farmington as part of the Military Warrior Support Foundation and Wells Fargo, a partnership that awards homes to 100 percent disabled veterans across the country.
Milton is all business when he wears his service vest.
Trained since birth to be a service dog by the PAWS Assistance Dogs group in Florida, he was raised to be of aid. PAWS is a nonprofit organization that promotes independence for combat wounded veterans and children with life-changing disabilities.
Even though Milton is priceless as a service dog, Erickson said he and Milton were part of a public relations poster campaign.
"We called him million dollar Milton because he helped to bring in funds for the organization," he said.
Milton joined the Erickson family more than a year ago. The dog has won over the family with his sweet, caring demeanor. Milton can rely on constant love and petting from all the children, Hailey, 16, Brodi, 15, Brandon, 13, and 7-year-old Michael.
"Milton will be melting hearts," Erickson said, smiling as he pets the golden retriever.
Respected as royalty in the Erickson family, Milton carries a royal bloodline in his canine family. His pure bred golden retriever brother is a top show dog in the nation.
"He is the most amazing service dog ever and I don't say he is my dog — I say I am his human," Erickson said. "There is not an ounce of hate in that dog at all."
Doing his research on veteran service dog programs across the country, Erickson found this company served his personal needs and his large family.
When Milton's vest is on, he is on duty and working but when his vest is off, he can be a playful puppy and family pet.
When the couple lived in Florida, his wife Zulma worked full-time and also took care of him as his part-time caregiver. "There were times I was worried because he was alone when he would have blackouts and it may take me 20 to 30 minutes to get home and now I see a difference since we have Milton," Zulma said.
Brain injury blackouts
Serving in the U.S. Army for nine years, Erickson worked as an airborne infantryman and was exposed to combat-related injuries while serving in the war in Kunar, Afghanistan.
"Being in the infantry is hard to explain," he said. "You are on the front lines and you are trying to find the bad guys and you are airborne jumping out of helicopters." He was deployed twice to Afghanistan and once to South Korea.
As part of the Second Platoon Battalion Company in the Second 173rd Airborne group out of Italy, Erickson chose to become an infantryman in the military.
"It was a job I chose and I broke my neck and that is when my military days were over," he said.
Feeling fortunate he can walk and drive, Erickson said "The military kept me as a fully functioning, opioid-addicted military soldier."
He relied on Valium, Percocet and OxyContin for pain management.
"When I have these blackouts, Milton helps me out with those," Erickson said. "Once I come out of the blackouts, Milton will come and I will ask him to brace and he knows to kind of reposition his feet and he knows how to actually support my weight and assist me with getting back up."
Erickson said the doctors are working to understand his brain injury.
"When the walls start closing in, it is a done deal," Erickson said.
"It does make me feel better that he does have somebody to help and as a companion who serves a purpose," said his wife Zulma.
Besides becoming a loyal best friend and loving companion, Erickson suggests service dogs can be beneficial for veterans of all ages and disabilities.
Marcy Schwartzmiller, owner of KeePet Clean in downtown Farmington, shows her gratitude for Reid's service as a veteran by offering her pet grooming services to keep Milton's fur fluffy and clean.
"Marcy is amazing and she does not charge me, and that is amazing and I try to tip her and I know she loves Milton," Erickson said.
"Milton has never known anything else and he serves a higher purpose than a therapy dog because of my disability," Erickson added. "He is so sweet and he is my best friend really."