Army veteran in service dog lawsuit details war experiences

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A federal civil rights lawsuit on behalf of a Saline County man alleging employment discrimination by the Union Pacific Railroad entered its third day Wednesday in Little Rock with attorneys for Perry Hopman continuing the presentation of their case against the railroad.

Hopman, 45, of Benton, an Army veteran and former flight attendant, filed a lawsuit in federal court on Jan.26, 2018, after Union Pacific officials denied his requests in 2015 and 2017 for his service dog to be allowed to accompany him to work at the North Little Rock yard where he is an engineer on overnight trips to Van Buren in Crawford County.

Hopman, a veteran, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 2008 after serving 18 months in Iraq and is a survivor of a traumatic brain injury that occurred while deployed in 2010 to Kosovo.

Much of Wednesday was marked by objections, skirmishes between opposing attorneys, and fights between attorneys and U.S. District Judge Kristine G. Baker – the presiding judge for the trial – over testimony that Torrriano Garland, a lawyer for Union Pacific, argued the defense team were caught off guard. But John Griffin Jr., representing Hopman, maintained the testimony was acceptable under federal trial rules.

A flare-up came as Don Deckard, a veteran of the Marines and longtime Union Pacific employee, testified about his experiences with soldiers suffering from PTSD in the Marine Corps.

“It’s sad, you have to think back to when I entered the Marines,” Deckard said. “The people, elders, senior officers and enlisted men were both privates, first-class soldiers, and lance corporals in Vietnam.”

Many of them, he said, suffered from PTSD, which at the time was a condition of which much was not understood. He told the story of an artillery sergeant who developed a simple aiming system for tanks despite PTSD triggered by the sound of gunfire.

“We called him Shaky Jake,” Deckard said, his voice charged with emotion. “We would go out into the field and when those main guns went off it would collapse. We didn’t know. We didn’t know why it was like that. We didn’t understand it.”

Despite Garland’s objections, Griffin said Deckard’s testimony would explain how his exposure to Vietnam-era veterans suffering from PTSD motivated him to try and help Hopman and that he would testify to this long experience with them. locomotives that Hopman’s assistance dog could easily be accommodated in the cabin. .

Garland argued that defense attorneys were not made aware of this line of testimony by the plaintiff’s attorneys.

“They had two years to drop this person off,” Griffin replied. “We believe the disclosure was sufficient… and no UP challenge was made until the middle of the trial.”

Griffin, describing Deckard’s testimony, said the witness would testify that there was plenty of space in the cab of a locomotive to accommodate the dog.

“Has he worked with Mr. Hopman? Garland asked.

“It was not allowed,” Griffin said.

“So how is that not an opinion?” Garland asked. “You should have disclosed it. It’s not our burden to oppose something we don’t know is going to happen. It’s an ambush trial.”

Baker decided that Deckard could testify as Griffin had pointed out over Garland’s objections.

“We have a fundamental disagreement on the issue of security,” she told Garland. “I am the judge, and I have ruled.”

On Wednesday afternoon, after Deckard testified, Hopman spent nearly 2.5 hours at the stand describing to jurors his wartime experiences that led to his current disability and accompanying the eight women and three men of the jury throughout his five-year battle to convince Union Pacific officials that having his service dog, a 125-pound Rottweiler named Atlas, would pose no danger to his colleagues and provide him with more stability during his shifts.

As he recounted his experiences, the 11 jurors turned their chairs towards him and watched him intently, all eyes on Hopman.

“I was in my bed trying to take a nap, and it was 127 degrees outside,” he said. “The wind was blowing so hot it would almost burn your fingers. We got the call, medivac, medivac, medivac, and without even thinking about it, we started to get dressed.”

The destination, he said, was a convoy that struck an improvised explosive device, resulting in numerous casualties. Once there, he said, he scanned the perimeter and started triage.

“Basically,” he said, “you decide who is going to live and who is not.

Hopman described a scenario of moving quickly from one wounded soldier to another, stopping the bleeding, treating the wounds, and deciding who had enough chance of survival so as not to risk the lives of others by spending time and resources to save them.

“This is a decision I would make on my own,” he said, an anguished look on his face. “Thank goodness I don’t have to see their families but I live with it every day.”

He said he ran into a soldier with two legs and one arm blown off in the explosion.

“I’ve never had someone ask me to let them die. This one asked me,” he said softly. “I said to him, ‘boss, you got the wrong doctor for that.'”

A few years later, he said, he met the soldier at Walter Reed Hospital where he had been sent for treatment of his own injuries.

“I want to thank you for not doing what I asked you to do,” Hopman told the soldier. “I have met his family, his wife and his children.”

He told the story of a young Iraqi girl who was badly burned in an accident at her home, explaining that he would often be called upon to take care of civilians as part of his job.

“They decided to let their child fill the kerosene lamps,” he said. “A child is not very coordinated. My 12 year old has a broken foot now.”

Hopman said an explosion occurred and the girl suffered third degree burns to 90% of her body, the only thing that saved her from death immediately was that her face did not been burnt.

“I picked it up and ran over to the helicopter and it was literally running through my fingers,” he said. “I don’t know if she survived. I dropped her off at the Baghdadi emergency room and never heard anything else.”

About Atlas, he said he couldn’t explain all the ways the dog is helping him, but Atlas is able to keep him steady during flashbacks, warn him of approaching migraines, create a barrier between him and the crowd and keep him calm when anxiety threatens to overwhelm him.

“I don’t know what it is,” Hopman said. “He just helps. He makes Perry a better Perry.”

Hopman’s testimony resumes this morning at 8:30 a.m. His lawyers have said they will conclude their case earlier today, when Union Pacific lawyers will present their defense. Linda Schoonmaker told Baker the defense is expected to end later today, making it likely the case will go to jury by Friday.

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