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War Veteran With Service Dog Rejected

HOUSTON (CN) - A veteran disabled in the Iraq war was refused housing because he uses a service dog, the veteran claims in court.

Derek E. Kolb sued Willshow Inc. dba Texas Realty and Management under the Fair Housing Act, in Federal Court. They are the only defendants.

Kolb, 29, served as an Army infantryman in Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2005 and 2006, conducting raids and clearing roadside bombs from supply routes. He suffered traumatic brain and leg injuries when a roadside bomb exploded north of Diwaniya in September 2005.

Kolb was medically retired from the Army and received 10 awards for his service, including the Bronze Star. He also walked away suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder that made his life hell, he says in the complaint.

He "experienced isolation, hyper-vigilance, loss of pleasure, suicidal ideations, loss of interest, avoidance of crowds, loss of friends and family, and increased anxiety, all because of his PTSD," he says.

By 2011 he was homeless and estranged from his family. But Kolb says a Harris County transitional living facility for homeless vets with PTSD, called Camp Hope, turned his life around.

He began to reconnect with his family, volunteered to be the house "boss" at Camp Hope and tended a garden there that helped with his PTSD.

Buoyed by his recovery, Kolb says, he decided he wanted to live on his own.

He applied for a service dog with the "Train A Dog - Save A Warrior" program, and was scheduled to get his dog in May this year.

He contacted Texas Realty and Management aka Tramco to help him find a rental home. He found a Houston home for $1,100 per month, called the "Stoneleigh property" in the complaint.

"Kolb became aware that he would receive his service animal by the time he moved into his new property. Sgt. Kolb also learned the identity of the service animal - a husky mix dog named 'Balto,'" the complaint states.

He told Tramco's agent Sheena Ayers about Balto and emailed her a picture of the husky along with his rental application, he says.

"Ms. Ayers emailed the picture of Balto to Cindy Garcia, the office manager for Tramco. In an email on May 14, 2003, Ms. Garcia indicated that Balto looked like a 'German Shepherd so answer is no,'" the complaint states.

Kolb says he told Ayers he needed the dog for his disabilities, but she said, "the service animal was an 'aggressive breed' and Tramco would not allow it at the Stoneleigh property."

Kolb says he tried to work with Tramco, and ordered a new service dog from the program, which gave him a mixed breed named Hank.

But "Ayers told Sgt. Kolb that the Stoneleigh owner believed Hank also looked aggressive. Ms. Ayers advised Sgt. Kolb that he needed to forget the Stoneleigh property," the complaint states.

Desperate to find housing, Kolb says, he offered to pay a security deposit for Hank and three months rent in advance.

But Ayers stopped returning his calls and Tramco's indifference aggravated his PTSD, Kolb says. He withdrew into his bedroom at Camp Hope and obsessed about finding rental listings that would accept his dog.

"Eventually, Sgt. Kolb found a rental property, but only by using another rental management company. Sgt. Kolb's current rental property is $1,200 a month in rent, which is $100 more a month than the Stoneleigh property. Sgt. Kolb's current rental property is further away from family and his medical services than the Stoneleigh property," the complaint states.

Kolb seeks punitive damages for violations of the Fair Housing Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act and Texas law.

He also seeks an injunction ordering Tramco to adopt policies consistent with federal law, and ordering its staff "to undergo fair housing training, in particular with regard to handling accommodation requests related to service animals."

Tramco office manager Cindy Garcia did not respond to a request for comment.

Balto, the rejected husky, is named for the husky who led a sled team on its final leg in 1925 to haul diphtheria antitoxin from Anchorage to Nome. The Iditarod Trail Race is held every year in honor of Balto's exploits.

Balto's preserved body is on display at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. There is a statue of him in New York City's Central Park, and a movie was recently made about him.

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