Alan McMahon didn’t grow up with dogs, but at 87, the Korean War veteran can’t imagine living without his assistance dog, Precious.
Sporting her official red coat, emblazoned with her name and the words, Service Dog, the shih tzu/Havanese dog happily greets visitors with a wag of her tail and her ball, hoping for a game of fetch.
“I’d never had a dog before and they are a lot of work — you have to take them to the dog park and they have to run,” said McMahon, who has had the friendly black and white dog since she was eight weeks old. “But with a dog, you are never alone, it enhances your life if you are willing to put the effort into it. And she helps me so much — if the paper girl delivers the paper in the middle of the night, Precious hears it. I go to restaurants and I take her with me.”
McMahon spent a year in Korea with the Royal Canadian Horse Artillery and joined the war effort as a way of seeing the world and having a bit of adventure. Unfortunately, tragedy struck before he and his fellow soldiers even made it to Korea. While en route from basic training in Shilo, Man. to join American soldiers for further training in Fort Lewis, Wash., the train crashed Nov. 21, 1951 near Valemount, B.C. and 18 soldiers were killed.
The Korean War began June 25, 1950, when North Korean armed forces invaded South Korea. The war’s combat phase lasted until an armistice was signed July 27, 1953. As part of a United Nations force consisting of 16 countries, 26,791 Canadian military personnel served in the Korean War, during both the combat phase and as peacekeepers afterward. The last Canadian soldiers left Korea in 1957. After the two world wars, Korea remains Canada’s third-bloodiest overseas conflict, taking the lives of 516 Canadians and wounding more than 1,200. (The Canadian Encylopedia)
“The Korean War is the forgotten war. If you are a Second World War veteran, there is a lot of talk about it and many casualties,” said McMahon. “The Korean War saw only about 500 Canadians lost.
“But when I came back I did have to see a psychiatrist for a while.”
As a result of his time in the war, McMahon suffered both hearing loss and Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD).
“I was in the artillery unit and in charge of the gun or the person who fired it,” said McMahon, who was 20 when he first went overseas, and for which he voluntarily signed up. “It was the excitement — that’s why I wanted to go to war. And when I was there, I had a good job with people all around, but my ears were damaged — I can’t hear high-pitched noises — and I also have PTSD, something that used to be called shell shock.”
PTSD is classified as a psychiatric stress-related disorder that develops as a result of a traumatic event. It can develop following direct or indirect exposure to violence, death and traumatic events such as war, crimes, accidents and terror attacks.
“They never used to pension for it and in 2000 they started a pension for veterans with PTSD because too many servicemen were committing suicide,” said McMahon. “You lose your leg and they give you $300,000 and tell you to go and live your life and have nothing to support them and this is why veterans are committing suicide.”
According to Veterans Affairs Canada, the maximum a soldier can receive in a Lump Sum Disability Award is up to $310,378 based on the extent of the disability, which includes PTSD.
After the war, McMahon returned home to work for a paper company in Ontario, a job he held for many years. The father of three grown children — two daughters, in Ottawa and Cranbook, and a son in Vancouver — and grandfather of three moved to Vernon in 1988, following the death of his first wife, to whom he was married for 35 years.
“My kids thought it would be good for me to get away, so I moved out here,” said McMahon, who worked as a part-time ski instructor at Silver Star for many years, teaching adults how to navigate the slopes — he was still skiing regularly up until last season. “I learned that people learn in direct proportion to how soon you can congratulate them.”
After moving to Vernon, McMahon met his second wife, Dorothy, but was widowed again when she passed away in 2006.
For McMahon, having a dog in his life has proved to be more than just assistance for hearing and PTSD. Precious is also a companion for the twice-widowed senior.
Precious is registered with the Department of Justice so that McMahon can take her everywhere, from restaurants to public transportation, and he has two certificates he carries with him at all times: a Guide Dog and Service Dog Certificate, and an ID card from Service Dogs Canada. Precious is now two years old and is trained to hear the smoke detector, carbon dioxide detector and knocks on the door.
“She is certified by the Department of Justice for both hearing assistance and the PTSD I suffer from as a result of my time in the Korean War — not all disabilities are visible. A guy from the department came up from Vancouver and we met in Merritt when she was 10 months old,” said McMahon. “He was surprised at how good she was at such a young age.
“She has to be tested after two years and then every three years. There were 40 personality tests she had to complete, such as going on a bus, staying in the car, sitting and staying and not going up to other dogs.”
McMahon spent time working with Precious before her tests, but also appreciates the help he received from local dog trainer Victoria Regan with Valley Canine Training.
“It isn’t always veterans who have a need for service dogs, it is anybody who is lonely, who needs a dog to help them, especially if somebody is living alone — I’m sure I’m going to live longer because I have to get out with her, and I’m never alone.”