CHANTILLY, Va. (WUSA9) — A local military veteran whose service to our country left her disabled is now fighting another battle at home. In just the last week, two Northern Virginia restaurants have either asked her to leave or hassled her — all because she has a service dog.
Brinkley the service dog can detect Navy veteran Heather Diaz’ debilitating migraine headaches before they set in. Her anxiety attacks have completely stopped. So she describes what’s happened to her recently as “heartbreaking, frustrating and embarrassing.”
“It hurts,” Diaz said. “I got really angry about it.”
Diaz and her co-workers stopped for lunch at Genghis Grill in Chantilly, when something shocking happened.
“The manager’s name is Juan. He came up to me and said, ‘You need to leave. Dogs are not allowed,’” Diaz explained. “And I said, ‘He is a service dog.’ And he said, ‘I don’t care.’”
Brinkley isn’t just a companion to Diaz. He’s a medical necessity.
“He’s helped lower my blood pressure. My blood pressure was 140/84. And after 30 days with him, it dropped to 107/70,” she said.
For 11 years, Diaz served in the United States Navy.
“I can hold my head high knowing that I did something for my country,” she said.
But service did something to her. She lost seven friends to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five Navy SEALS. And now her husband is deployed in the Middle East.
“It was kind of hard when I said goodbye to my husband, thinking about how they said goodbye to their significant others and they never came home,” Diaz said.
Diaz tried to hold her ground with the manager.
“And I said again, are you aware of the laws stating he is allowed to be with me wherever I go?” she said. “Again, he said, ‘I don’t care.’”
That manager, Juan, wouldn’t talk to WUSA9. But another manager did.
“I apologize,” said Genghis Grill Manager, Vicky Dudley. “I asked him like, ‘What happened?’ He was like, ‘I just told her to leave.’ I’m like ‘Juan, you cannot tell her to leave. That’s against the law. You cannot tell her to leave.’”
The restaurant issued the following statement in response:
"The main priority for every Genghis Grill employee is to create an enjoyable and memorable experience for each of our guests. Each employee receives training upon his/her hire regarding our policies and procedures and our code of conduct.
During the course of this training, they are made aware of our anti-discrimination policy which states 'the Company does not tolerate acts of discrimination based upon race, color, national origin, sex pregnancy, religion, disability, age, status as a disabled veteran, or any other factor protected by applicable law.'"
That first incident at Genghis Grill happened last Friday. The next day, she brought her two children to this Olive Garden in Manassas. She said her family was repeatedly passed over for seating.
“The manager’s excuse was we have to go around asking all the people in the restaurant which you would be sitting near if they have dog allergies or a problem with a service dog,” Diaz said.
The family left and went to a different Olive Garden in Fair Oaks, which seated them immediately. No questions asked.
The Olive Garden also apologized and said it was taking steps to ensure this doesn’t happen again. It issued the following statement:
“Service dogs are always welcome in our restaurants, and our teams are trained on what to do when a guest is accompanied by a service animal. This guest has dined with us in our Manassas location with her service dog many times before. Unfortunately, her most recent experience did not meet our high standards, and for that we are truly sorry. We’ve taken this opportunity to ensure something like this doesn’t happen again.”
The laws related to service dogs are clear. For a state-by-state guide, click here.