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A new war to win

A new war to win

12/04/2016 DENTON, TX Tawan Throngkumpola sits with his service dog, Cali, Sunday morning in Legends Hall where lives. Throngkumpola wears a 22kill honor ring on his right index finger as a “silent salute” to all veterans, past and present. Credit: Hannah Breland

A new war to win
January 19
15:33 2017

Austin Jackson | Staff Writer

He was cast adrift in a hotel parking lot, staring straight in front of him into an area of nothing. The whine of the rottweiler riding shotgun suddenly focuses Tawan Throngkumpola’s thousand yard stare back to reality, snapping him out of this trance.

For 12 years, he bled for his country. In 2015 he returned to civilian life and eventually became a psychology senior at UNT.

But like many soldiers, the fog of war followed.

Three roadside bombs left his skin discolored and his brain charred by the embers of war.

His service and sacrifice is written all over his face. When he enters a room, he plans his escape. It’s not paranoia, he said, just “situational awareness.”

But Tawan, the 41-year-old psychology senior living in Legends Hall, never saw the ambush coming.

On Nov. 14, three days after Veterans Day, Throngkumpola received a letter from the UNT Office of Disability Accommodations informing him his service dog, Cali, was no longer allowed on campus.

“I got blindsided,” he said. “No notice, no nothing.”

It started with a bet and ended with a dog

On Jan. 29 2003, Tawan, a University of Texas — Austin student at the time, was living in Jester Hall. An innocent bet at the university resulted in a lifetime of impact.

“I lost a bet and I joined the Navy,” he said.

As a hospital corpsman, Throngkumpola’s job was to take care of Marines on the battle field. To the Marines, he was known as “Doc.”

The Navy transformed the listless college kid, more interested in the bar scene than the academics at UT, into the man he is today. A man burdened by PTSD, night terrors, seizures and anterograde amnesia.

But they also made him a man who makes up his bed every morning. A man of regiment and routine. A man he’s proud of, a man who wants to give back.

But before he shipped off to serve in Operation Iraqi Freedom, tragedy struck at home. Throngkumpola suffered most of his wounds during his first tours in Fallujah. But his first real tragedy struck close to the heart.

12/04/2016 DENTON, TX
Tawan Throngkumpola’s service dog, Cali, sits with him in Legends Hall. Hannah Breland

In 2004, after receiving his training for battlefield medicine in North Carolina and Illinois, his wife was killed in a car accident.

When his commander asked him to stay and grieve, Tawan refused.

“I needed to get away,” Throngkumpola said. “I had to just get away from it. If I stayed I would do is sit and think about her.”

He buried his grief under adrenaline and guerrilla warfare in Fallujah, Iraq.

The second battle of Falluajah, also known as Operation Phantom Fury, was both the bloodiest battle of the Iraq War and also where Tawan proved to his platoon that he had the ability to cover their backs. The camaraderie, purpose and routine was a welcome escape from his grief.

“It wasn’t a typical war,” he said. “It was guerrilla warfare. It was compared to Vietnam. They were expecting 80 percent loss. Eight out of 10 people was an acceptable loss.”

Man’s best friend

For Tawan, Cali is his everything. The 80-pound rottweiler in a camouflage vest has been by his side 24/7 for the past four years.

She watches his back during the day and lays on his stomach to keep him from sleep walking at night. She guides him through the crowds that trigger his PTSD and lifts her paw to his thigh to remind him to take his seizure medicine. She serves.

“She’s my battle buddy, we’ve been through everything together,” he said. “I told them if Cali goes, I go too.”

But some at UNT have found Cali’s service to be a threat.

Citing complaints from two professors, a student, his residence assistant and a first hand account from Ron Venable, the ODA director at the time, said Cali was a “direct threat” to the UNT population and had to be removed immediately.

The letter reported Cali bit the hand of a student in his residence hall, growled and intimidated a classmate’s service dog and scratched his RA.

Tawan disputes and denies these claims. He said he doesn’t remember Cali biting or scratching anyone and described the other student’s “service” dog with air quotes.

Tawan said the ODA was only trying to do their job and acted out of concern for the greater UNT population but what he didn’t understand was Venable’s unilateral reflexive decision.

He said choosing Cali, potential homelessness and risking an entire semester wasn’t difficult. Boarding Cali was never an option for him.

To Tawan, she’s not just his best friend, she’s his lifeline.

“Cali is not a normal dog,” he said. “She was prescribed to me by two board-certified doctors. It would be like if you have a kid that has asthma and taking their inhaler away.”

After CBS 11 reported the story, Matthieu DeWein was promoted to interim director of the ODA.

DeWein said he couldn’t comment on any student’s specific case or why he was promoted, but he did say he took over the interim position vacated by Veneable in “recent weeks.”

Throngkumpola said DeWein reached out and welcomed him and Cali back to campus with conditions. Now in addition to the vest, Cali wears a muzzle and is undergoing refresher courses from her trainer.

He’s happy things have worked out, but Tawan said the fight seems endless at times.

Just a civilian

 Tawan, a self described “old war dog,” carries his ornery pride and the posture he learned in boot-camp with a leash and a limp.

The adjustment to civilian life has been relatively gradual he said.

Tawan said though he hopes medicine can uncover a new treatment or cures for his injuries and disorders, it’s likely he will have to treat the traumatic brain injuries, post traumatic stress disorder, anterograde amnesia, crippling depression narcolepsy and epilepsy through time.

In order to function properly, Tawan douses his brain with a cocktail of psychoactive drugs, each at max dose.

In the morning he gets on the chemical treadmill, starting with stimulants to wind him up in the day and sedatives to coax his brain into three to four hours of turbulent sleep at night.

In between, he takes anti-seizure medication and antidepressants to keep him “happy, smiling or emotionally [right] throughout the day.”

“They say things get better with time,” Tawan said. “I like to be an optimist, and I’ve dealt with medicine and miracles happen everyday, but it’s like, where do I fit into this?”

Until then, he’ll continue to go to class, looking over his shoulder whenever he hears the faintest of noises. He’ll keep on tensing up when someone whizzes past him on their bike. He’ll keep looking to Cali for support.

“When does it end?” Tawan said. “I’m a fighter. I don’t quit. I don’t retreat. I might fall back, regroup and come back at you. But when does the drama just end so we’re able to do what we’re meant to do?”

Featured Image: Tawan Throngkumpola sits with his service dog, Cali, Sunday morning in Legends Hall where lives. Throngkumpola wears a 22 kill honor ring on his right index finger as a “silent salute” to all veterans, past and present. Hannah Breland

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Kayleigh Bywater

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