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SANTA FE, N.M. — Brian Ryder has undergone 23 surgeries to repair his spine and hips after a nearly fatal accident in July 2009, while he was deployed with the U.S. military in Afghanistan. He was saving his money to buy a service dog that he hoped could change his life.
One day after he moved to Santa Fe last week, however, he lost his savings of about $700 when two men robbed him at gunpoint just north of the city's downtown.
Ryder, 38, said in an interview Wednesday that he had moved to Santa Fe on Feb. 6 to live with his mother and continue various treatments at the veterans hospital in Albuquerque.
He figured a service dog would help him in every area of his life — mainly with his mobility. He takes falls on a weekly basis, about nine of which have resulted in concussions. "I'm just scared to death of one of these days taking a fall, hitting my head and losing the memory and cognition I have left," said Ryder, who walks with a cane.
Originally from Tallahassee, Fla., Ryder was walking back to his mother's house at about 11:20 p.m. Feb. 7, after having a drink at The Rouge Cat bar on Marcy Street. "It was my first time off a base in four years," he said. "I wanted to celebrate with a beer."
Because of his repetitive concussion syndrome, Ryder gets disoriented easily and went astray on the way back to his mother's house off Bishops Lodge Road, he said. Crossing the bridge that connects Grant Avenue and the completely dark Rosario Street, Ryder didn't expect what was ahead of him. "I had been here a day, and this place seemed so peaceful," Ryder said. "I just let my guard down."
Near the corner of Rosario Street and Grant Avenue, he said, he was approached by two men, one of whom pointed a gun at Ryder's chest and demanded his money. Ryder said he reacted "the only way he knew how" and used a "weapons break" move he learned in the military. Ryder said he used his cane to knock the gun from his assailant's hand.
When the gunman's accomplice grabbed Ryder from behind, Ryder launched his head back, smashing it into the man's nose.
Ryder, who stands 6-foot-2, said the man who grabbed him from behind was of roughly equal height. They both fell into a bush in front of a home on Rosario Street.
As Ryder struggled to get back to his feet, he saw the first assailant — whom he described as in his 20s, about 5-foot-9, with a tattoo on the left side of his neck — pick up the gun from the street and again point it at him. Ryder said he swung his cane again, hitting the gun and turning the barrel away from him. A single gunshot discharged east toward Old Taos Highway, he said.
After stealing Ryder's wallet, the assailants fled in the same direction the gun had fired, removing the $700 from his wallet as they ran. They dropped his wallet, which still contained his military identification card, in the middle of the street. Ryan said he called 911, and police arrived about a minute later.
"You seem pretty calm for just being shot at," Ryder said the responding officer told him.
"Unless it's a mortar or an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade), I don't get too shaken," Ryder responded.
Although relatively calm, Ryder said he was devastated to have lost his savings.
Santa Fe police haven't identified any suspects, but Ryder said the officers who responded told him that they found some stolen property under the bridge that he had walked across that night. On Wednesday, dismantled plastic DVD cases, with Wal-Mart tags still stuck to them, littered the arroyo under the bridge; Ryder suspects his assailants had been there.
Ryder, who served in the Marine Corps from 1992 through 1996 and was deployed to Afghanistan as part of the Georgia National Guard in 2009, said he was chasing an enemy sniper on foot when he was hit by an enemy vehicle, breaking his spine in multiple places. He spent two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the Washington, D.C., area and two years at a Wounded Warriors Project transition training center in Georgia.
He officially retired from his service on Feb. 14.
In addition to suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, short-term memory loss and disorientation, he uses the cane to help maintain his balance. Ryder's mother, Ronda White, said she urged her son to come to Santa Fe to take advantage of treatment centers for PTSD here.
Learning that her son had been the victim of an armed robbery on his second day in Santa Fe "unnerved" White. She said she has never experienced anything like it in her time here. Santa Fe police statistics, however, show robberies have increased significantly since 2011. The number of reported robberies, including armed robbery and strong-arm robbery, went up 41 percent from 2011 (78) to 2012 (110). There have been 14 robberies reported in the city so far this year — eight already this month.
"It's like my worst nightmare," Ryder said. "I spend four years in the hospital from Afghanistan just to get shot at here."
Looking for a service dog
Ryder is looking at a possible wait of six months to two years before he can be matched with a service dog.
He has contacted two local assistance dog centers, Assistance Dogs of the West and Paws and Stripes, in his effort to find a companion. He says he was told by Paws and Stripes that a deposit of $2,500 would expedite the process.
According to Linda Milanesi, executive director of Assistance Dogs of the West, located on St. Michael's Drive, the average wait time for a service dog is six months to two years because of the extensive matching process. Once matched with a dog, though, patients see immeasurable benefits, she said.
"These dogs change people's lives," Milanesi said of the various types of service dogs, which learn about 90 individual commands. "Because they're empowered and have more freedom, people have more confidence in themselves."
The dogs, which cost about $24,000 to train and maintain through Assistance Dogs of the West, are provided to people for about $6,000, Milanesi said.