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‘He is focus and he’s freedom;’

Veteran park ranger at Lower Granite teams up with service dog

Walla Walla District Corps of Engineers
Published Feb. 9, 2021
Emily Klinefelter, Park Ranger with Lower Granite Natural Resource Office and Duke the German Shepherd.

Emily Klinefelter, Park Ranger with Lower Granite Natural Resource Office and Duke the German Shepherd. Klinefelter partnered with the Clearwater Humane Society, the Veterans Administration and an anonymous donor and received a purpose-bred German Shepherd named Duke. Despite her concern that a park ranger with a service dog wouldn’t be accepted, Duke was met with open arms and has become a beloved member of the Lower Granite Natural Resources staff.

“I am 10th generation to serve,” Emily Klinefelter, Park Ranger with Lower Granite Natural Resource Office, said. “My grandmother filled my head with dreams about being a sailor. She served in WWII teaching young Americans and Russians how to use the anti-aircraft guns.”

Klinefelter joined the Navy, traveling the world on the back of an aircraft carrier. Then, after 9-11, the U.S. found itself in the midst of a war. One of the biggest dangers in this war were the IEDs, or improvised explosive devices, bombs that were remotely operated and planted with the aim of blowing up U.S. soldiers and vehicles. It was into this war that Klinefelter deployed.

“I kissed my daughter goodbye, and I kissed my husband goodbye and I went to Iraq. And I brought soldiers home alive, and that’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done, outside of two amazing babies,” Klinefelter said.

Despite her love for deploying, the fight began to take a toll on her. After her second or third deployment, she tried to take her own life. Then, a deployment after that resulted in her losing vision, hearing and nerve control in her right side. “I learned to shoot with my left,” Klinefelter said, “and I went back.” She deployed seven times in her 20 years with the Navy.

“And then, one beautiful September day in Pearl Harbor Hawaii, I exchanged one dream for another,” Klinefelter said. In 2018, she retired from the Navy as a Chief Petty Officer and began her new job as a park ranger for the National Park Service on the grounds of the USS Arizona, right off the shore of Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu Hawaii.

As a park ranger there she didn’t have to worry about how much driving scared her. “It’s an island, where are you gonna drive to anyway?” Klinefelter asked.

However, in a desire to be closer to family and to provide more opportunities for their children, Klinefelter and her husband both applied to, and were hired by, the Lower Granite Project in the Walla Walla District.

Klinefelter soon discovered, though, that being a park ranger for Lower Granite required a lot of driving, which began to trigger panic attacks. She didn’t want to quit but continuing to work in an environment that brought on panic attacks was not an option. So she asked her boss about getting a service dog.

“I was prepared to hear no. I was prepared to hear, ‘not on the job.’ I was prepared to not be a park ranger,” Klinefelter said. Instead, in February, Klinefelter partnered with the Clearwater Humane Society, the Veterans Administration and an anonymous donor and received a purpose-bred German Shepherd named Duke. And despite her concern that a park ranger with a service dog wouldn’t be accepted, Duke was met with open arms.

“The entire team got behind me. Not just my boss, not just the other rangers, the maintainers, everybody on the team got behind me,” Klinefelter said. “It’s not just the tennis balls that keep appearing mysteriously on my desk, although the pile’s getting pretty high. It’s a friendly hand, so he knows he can trust them. It’s helping me have a custom-made seatbelt made for him in the back of the truck so he’s safe. …And it’s letting people know that it’s okay to ask for help.”

Now Klinefelter has someone in the car to keep her from getting anxiety attacks.

“He is focus and he’s freedom,” Klinefelter said. “When we’re in the truck and my anxiety starts to ratchet up because there’s trash on the side of the road or a dead animal, with short sleeves, he’ll rub his nose up and down the back of my arm. In long sleeve he nibbles at it. If that doesn’t get me to refocus, he moves around to the other side and you cannot ignore a German Shepherd tongue up the side of your face!”

Navigating park maintenance with an 80 lb dog has given her a new level of understanding of the term accessible. If gates and bathroom stalls aren’t wide enough for him to walk next to her, are they wide enough for a wheelchair? It has also given her the ability to connect with guests, especially children with disabilities.

“Being able to crouch down and show them hearing aids, explain that I can’t see all that well on one side either, helps me be more approachable, helps the kids dream a little,” Klinefelter said. “You don’t know who the next park ranger’s going to be. You don’t know who the next civil engineer is going to be.”

Duke has given Klinefelter the ability to be the best park ranger she can be. However, it wasn’t easy to ask for the help. As a non-commissioned officer, “I didn’t ask for help, I gave it,” Klinefelter said. “And it’s hard to ask for that help. It’s hard to see I need it. But if it shows other veterans and other people in general that it’s okay to ask for help, then I’m a little more confident.”

There are many resources available to help those struggling with PTSD and other forms of mental or emotional distress. Those struggling with suicidal thoughts of other forms of distress can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8355. Veterans can call this number, then press 1 to speak to a trained VA responder, or text 838255.

Another option is the Personal Crisis Text Line, which provides 24/7 support within the United States. Individuals can text 741741 to connect with a Crisis Counselor.

There are also many organizations out there that provide service dogs for veterans and individuals with disabilities. A list of ADI (Assistance Dog International) accredited agencies can be found at https://assistancedogsinternational.org/.