Meet Tyler Densford, a retired United States Air Force paraplegic veteran from Mississippi who just received a service dog named Able from Retrieving Freedom, Inc (RFI). RFI is a 501c3 non-profit that trains service dogs for disabled veterans and children with autism, as well as diabetic alert dogs. Last weekend I had the privilege and honor to hunt with a great group of these guys and see Able in action!
Q: Tell us a little bit about yourself! Where you’re from, your military background, school, family, your military career, etc.
I am the oldest of triplet brothers, (24). We graduated from Lewisburg High School in Olive Branch, MS in 2012. I went on to attend Delta State University in Cleveland, MS, majoring in Commercial Aviation/ Flight Ops. I obtained my Commercial, Instrument, and Multi-Engine Flight Certifications within my first 2 years there. I joined the TN Air National Guard in 2014 as an Aircrew Flight Equipment Technician, with the goal of applying for a pilot slot within the unit on completion of my college degree. I took a full-time position at the 164th Airlift Wing and transferred to the University of Memphis. On June 11th, 2016, during a combat training exercise, I was dropped 50ft while hoisting upward to a Blackhawk helicopter. I suffered from a broken scapula, sternum, 9 ribs, a brain injury, and T8 Vertebrae burst which injured my spinal cord. While in the hospital, I went into acute respiratory distress which lead my heart to enter ventricular fibrillation. My right lung collapsed and I had to have a chest tube inserted, as well as a tracheostomy. Once stable enough to leave the hospital, I was flown via air ambulance to Atlanta, GA to the Shepherd Rehab Center where I learned how to live my life from a wheelchair. I am now living in Olive Branch, MS with my family and graduated The University of Memphis with a Bachelor Degree in Professional Studies/ Focus in Aviation Management.
Q: How has your service dog Able changed your life?
Coming home and coping with an extreme life altering event was tough. I was medically retired from my job in the US Air Force. I lost the ability to fly and pursue my aviation career. I lost a serious relationship that I was in prior to my injury. Unfortunately, I was extremely depressed and thought I was living in Hell-On-Earth. I constantly thought about why I had to suffer… Why was all of this happening to me? I slowly learned that God has big plans for my life, and that this “suffering” is only temporary; that we are not put on Earth to live an easy, glamorous life. Able has given me unconditional love that I just can’t explain. He wakes me up every morning with excitement and kisses! In times when I never wanted to leave my bed, Able gives me a reason to get up. He physically assists in my mobility, and offers as a post for when I fall out of my wheelchair. Without my best friend, Able, I know I would have taken a selfish action to ultimately end this worldly suffering in my life.
Q: Tell us some of the things Able does and his duties.
I am able to grip Able’s vest while rolling in my chair and he acts as an assist which is beneficial to my shoulder health. Able will retrieve objects that I drop and returns them to me. He can also post in positions that help me return to my wheelchair in the event that I fall out. Among these physical assists, Able keeps my mental state healthy, and lowers my anxiety when in the public environment.
Q: What has been one of the hardest things to overcome?
The hardest thing to overcome… geesh I don’t know if I could narrow it down to just one thing. It seems like every day brings its own challenge; whether it be finding accessible entrances, accepting my bodily changes, struggling to interact with the civilian population. I guess you could say the hardest thing to overcome is the frustration brought on by living a life from a wheelchair.
Q: What are you most grateful for?
I am most grateful for my family and friends who have stuck by me through this entire process.
Q: What has Retrieving Freedom Inc. meant to you?
Retrieving Freedom has become an extremely close family member. I have met so many generous individuals that are involved with the organization. These guys are dedicated to helping others, and ask for nothing in return – it is truly remarkable. I am humbled to have been given the opportunity to receive a service dog. I know it is a “God Thing” and he is using this organization to spread His message and benefit those in need.
Q: What are your plans for the future?
I plan on staying connected with Retrieving Freedom while traveling and taking some adventures. I want to learn how to adaptive ski and even hike a mountain. I like people telling me that I can’t do something, then proving them wrong.
Q: How do you handle new challenges?
I try not to think too hard about things. I go-with-the-flow and figure out each challenge as they come my way. I have learned to accept the help that others offer, and it makes it easier to overcome obstacles, such as maneuvering up and down staircases or obtaining objects out of my reach.
Q: What motivates/inspires you?
To be honest, Able inspires me. I can’t think of anything else that keeps me motivated. I used to be so focused on my future and what I needed to do in order to achieve all my goals. This experience has taught me to live in the “now” and enjoy those around me.
Q: How has your perspective on life changed?
Gosh has it changed, haha. My perspective has shifted to wanting acceptance and praise from my family and peers, to more of a “Hey, I am important regardless of what I am doing or my successes.” Live it up!
Q: What has led you to become the person you are today?
I think I am the way I am, because I chose to be a person that is positive. I want to show people that when bad things happen, you can keep going – overcome these differences and obstacles – and kick Murphy’s Law in the face!
Q: Favorite hobbies?
Being with friends, duck hunting, yard work, aviation (I hope to fly again with adaptive equipment), and I love being outside.
Q: What are people’s reaction to Able?
Haha! Able gets a lot of attention. He is always reminded of how handsome he is. He is definitely a chick magnet!
Q: Favorite quote/verse?
John 3:30 has been my verse throughout my journey following June 11th, 2016. “He must become more. I must become less.”
Q: What would you say to other people with similar injuries who are dealing with depression?
Keep moving! Being depressed isn’t going to change anything. I was dealt a crappy situation that I couldn’t change, and rather than wilting away in bed, I decided to take this crappy situation and run with it. This isn’t the life I had planned… but that doesn’t matter. I’m trusting HIM and I am going to keep moving and doing what makes me happy.