Grieving father of fallen Marine embraces son's service dog to get through pain

To get through the pain of losing his Marine son, Alex Ramon II has embraced his son's service dog Rocco to get him through the worst times.

SAN ANTONIO — Alex Ramon II is waiting for the day when the pain will subside. So far, the inner turmoil has not been quelled.

"It's been hard. Very hard," Ramon said.

Ramon's son died on Dec 6, 2015. Before he passed, Alex III lived a life serving his country. Ramon recalled his only son being inspired by the 9/11 terrorist attack on America.

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"He came up to me and said, ‘Dad, I got to do something for our country,’" Ramon recalled. "So, before I knew it, he had enlisted in the Marines."

Alex did three tours of duty in Afghanistan and Iraq. He left a 17-year-old going off the fight for his country. Ramon said that when his son returned, he was fighting a different battle.

"He was no longer 17. You could see it in his eyes," Ramon said. "He had seen things. He was told to do thing that had bothered him."

Ramon explained that Alex had been in two explosions yielding traumatic brain injury and PTSD. The Marine still yearned to get back to the frontlines.

His son got an assignment as a liaison for the parents of wounded Marines.

"That's when the reckless behavior starts," Ramon recalled. "The nightmares at night, the screaming where he'd be woken up. He was in terror."

Bouts with anger, binge drinking, troubled relationships, and financial problems became issues for Alex too. They sought help at the VA hospital.

"Their solution was opioids for pain," he said.

The Marine was prescribed medicine for sleep, depression, and focus as well. He also got a service dog named Rocco.

The Labrador gave Alex much needed solace. However, Rocco needed a lot of attention. When Alex moved on to his studies at Texas A&M-San Antonio, Ramon would dog sit for his son.

"It was like Rocco was wearing a watch," Ramon said.

Somehow, the dog had his master's routine down to the tick of a clock. Ramon said that Rocco was at the door the moment Alex walked in.

The combat veteran wanted to go to law school. He took the LSAT in December 2015.

But Ramon says that his son soon mixed alcohol with drugs. The combination was lethal.

One day, Alex's sister called her father, screaming.

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"I'll never forget that scream. She said, ‘Dad, Alex is dead,’" Ramon recalled. "I couldn't believe it. How?"

According to Ramon, his son had a heart attack. The family was devastated. Rocco was too. No more sitting at the front door.

In the weeks after Alex's death, Ramon remembered Rocco getting closer to him. The 68-year-old wasn't sure if he should keep his son's service dog. Then, he looked at him.

"There's something about Rocco. He's just like Alex," he said. "I look in his eyes and see my son."

Rocco’s vest says that he's a service dog but Ramon had him designated as an emotional support dog. In fact, Rocco's vest caught the attention of Carlos Villarreal's brother in a store parking lot.

Villarreal approached Ramon to strike up a conversation about Rocco. The two had more to talk about than he imagined.

"There's nothing glamorous about combat," said Villarreal, a retired Marine who served six tours of duty, five of which were in combat. "After the first time, it's an addiction. It's more than fighting for your country, it's fighting for what you believe in."

Villareal had the same yearnings as Alex and exhibited some of the same behavior. He battles with PTSD too.

"Whether it was excessive drinking, abusing my medication, or taking chances and risks in my day to day life,” he said.

Villarreal got a service dog called Scout. He became so vested in the positive effects that the animals have with people, he opened South Texas Service Dogs. He offered his services to Ramon at no charge.

"He started working with Rocco and I found out that Rocco was training me," Ramon said.

The retired Marine told Ramon to lean in on Rocco if needed.

"It's important to know that Rocco can be there for you," Villarreal said.

Every Sunday, Ramon and Rocco visit Alex's grave at Fort Sam Houston Cemetery. The two share graveside grief. Ramon prays and sheds tears. Rocco whimpers.

There is a place he won't allow pain or Rocco to take him. Ramon said that there's a room in his San Antonio home where he keeps Alex's personal belongings.

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"One day, I'll be ready for that," he said. "I'm not there yet."