The walk may cover only one mile in length, but its impact is an immeasurable distance in the eyes of Clemson junior Ashley Johnson.

At 8:15 a.m. Saturday in Jervey Meadows on the Clemson University campus, Johnson and her companion dog Aubrey will join a host of other participants taking part in some early-morning exercise prior to the inaugural Puppies & Patriots Memorial Day 5K.

Johnson is a direct beneficiary and avid believer in one of the event’s sponsors, Service Dogs for Veterans.

Aubrey, service dog for Ashley Johnson, a Clemson junior

Aubrey, a rescue dog, was paired with U.S. Navy veteran and Clemson junior Ashley Johnson through nonprofit organization Service Dogs for Veterans.
Image Credit: Ashley Johnson

“It’s a life-saving organization,” she said. “They take local rescue dogs who might not find homes and pair them with veterans in need who may have debilitating symptoms … and they give their lives back to them.

“Before I had Aubrey, going to school every day was difficult. I skipped classes. I had panic attacks. I left the classroom when it was too much.”

Johnson, 25, is a veteran who served three years in the U.S. Navy, about half of which included training at the Naval Weapons Station near Charleston, South Carolina. In August 2014, she was deployed to the Persian Gulf onboard the USS Carl Vinson — a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier — working as a machinist’s mate.

During the deployment which spanned nearly 10 months, she suffered a traumatic episode that changed her life.

Johnson was sexually assaulted on board the ship.

Coupled with a milder form of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) she had suffered as a child, the symptoms began to compound.

“After that happened on the ship, it got worse and brought out a lot of symptoms,” she said. “Hypervigilance, anxiety, always being on watch — just a general feel of being unsafe.”

Johnson was medically discharged for PTSD shortly after her return to the United States in July 2015. She returned home to the upstate of New York in December of that year and began to turn her attention to pursuing college options.

“Clemson came up as a good opportunity, and after checking it out, I moved here on a whim,” said Johnson, who originally enrolled at Tri-County Technical College for the 2016–17 academic year before transferring to Clemson. “It was an amazing decision because I’m now pursuing a double baccalaureate with degrees in psychology and criminal justice.”

Ashley Johnson and other members of the Student Veterans Association on Clemson's campus

Johnson (back left) is vice president of the Clemson University Student Veterans Association.
Image Credit: Ken Scar

As a student veteran, Johnson found exactly the type of support she desired at Clemson. She was introduced to Brennan Beck, who oversees military and veteran engagement for the Division of Student Affairs. She joined the Student Veterans Association (SVA), assuming the vice president’s role in only her second semester.

But it was the “match made in Heaven” in November of last year that’s made the biggest difference as she’s adjusted to college life.

“I’ve been with Aubrey since that time, and we’re a few weeks away from graduating the program,” Johnson said. “She’s come to school with me every day since I’ve gotten her, and she’s helped tremendously. I don’t have days where I feel I can’t do it anymore.”

Johnson was paired with Aubrey through Service Dogs for Veterans, and now the two are nearly inseparable. They’ve been seen in the Veterans Resource Center in Tillman Hall. They took part in the Walk for Veterans over the Spring Family Reunion last month. Aubrey is specifically trained to perform one of three tasks for Johnson: pushing her head against her as a grounding mechanism; snuggle while she’s sitting; and turning to know if anyone is coming up from behind.

Members of the Student Veterans Association in Tillman Hall

Aubrey is a frequent visitor to the Student Veterans Center in Tillman Hall.
Image Credit: Clemson University Relations

Beck said Johnson has been an invaluable addition as an advocate for student veterans.

“Ashley has been a consistent presence in our center, and Aubrey has been a comfort to other veterans in that space,” he said. “She’s been vocal in raising awareness and fundraising for Service Dogs for Veterans. I’ve really enjoyed my time working with her as we grow the SVA and Clemson’s veteran programs.”

Johnson found another resource in her former psychology advisor, Erin Siders. The two quickly developed a bond because of one inescapable reality: both are survivors.

Siders, like Johnson, was diagnosed with PTSD. She marvels at the strength displayed by Johnson along her journey.

“She has become a pillar of strength for anyone who might feel as if they cannot make it,” she said. “She still has days where she struggles, but those days are lessening. Her academic accomplishments have been stellar with respect to what she has overcome and what she copes with. With hard work, perseverance and courage, we can overcome … and Ashley has those three things in spades.”

With the assistance of Siders and Amanda Nicks — a fellow U.S. Navy veteran — Johnson is working toward building an initiative at Clemson modeled after the Navy’s sexual assault prevention and response program. She hopes it will be a tangible resource for survivors seeking proper counseling and support from trained personnel following similar incidents.

All the while, Johnson continues her pursuit of dual degrees. She is one semester away from finishing the psychology portion and three shy in criminal justice. She credits the Navy with providing her the discipline to succeed academically and wants to pursue a master’s degree when her undergraduate days are done.

In the meantime, she hopes to soon adopt Aubrey and continue taking advantage of all the resources and opportunities afforded through the Clemson Experience.

“I love this place,” she said. “It’s meant a lot to be part of a university where everyone who’s a part of it cares so much about it. Not only do we have the university connection, but also the student veterans connection. It’s been invaluable to my healing and growth.”

Healing and growth that goes much further than a mile.