Each is named after a servicemember, and their futures will be dedicated to helping those wounded in action: Meet the “Honor Litter.”
They're nine Labrador retriever puppies — three yellow, six black — who are helping troops with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury, even before they’re able to fully support the weight of an amputee trying to get into a wheelchair.
This is the Warrior Canine Connection, a Maryland-based nonprofit which uses the pups as therapy for troops to overcome PTSD and TBI by teaching them to train and foster the dogs.
The dogs act as social lubricant to help veterans reintegrate back into society, forcing them to learn patience and project a confidence or happiness they may not feel, according to Marshall Peters, a service dog trainer instructor with WCC.
“A lot of it’s acting,” said Peters, himself diagnosed with PTSD and severe insomnia after 6½ years in the Navy. “In the interest of helping a fellow servicemember and somebody who was wounded, they tend to reach a little further than what they’re comfortable with, and they start stretching those social muscles and getting their voice up and sounding and acting happy. There’s science that shows even the act of smiling when you’re not happy can kind of change the chemistry of your brain and eventually you will become happy.”
This litter is the WCC’s fourth. There are about 35 dogs currently in training, and work with servicemembers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, warrior transition units at Fort Belvoir, or other rehabilitation facilities. It takes about two years to train the dogs, after which they’ll be placed in a facility, or paired with a disabled veteran if they’re deemed suitable.
Peters is fostering and training a 7-month-old golden retriever named Lundy, who was donated to the WCC. Peters named him after his friend and fellow Navy corpsman Petty Officer Brian K. Lundy, who was killed in Afghanistan in 2011.
WCC also seized on the idea to honor those who have served for their current litter, inviting supporters to suggest names by writing in about friends or family who served.
“We’re honoring those who have served by naming puppies after them,” said Molly Morelli, WCC’s dog program director. “We selected stories that we felt really fit the mission and would mean something to those around us, so we chose more personal stories of people, maybe somebody who wrote about maybe their son or daughter.”
The puppies are named with the first name of these servicemembers:
- Army Sgt. Leigh Ann Hester, 31, the first female soldier to earn the Silver Star since World War II. During an ambush by about 50 insurgents on her convoy in Iraq in March 2005, Hester fought her way through the enemy to save fellow soldiers’ lives, killing three insurgents.
- Chief Explosive Ordnance Disposal Technician Nicholas H. Null, 30, who was assigned to a Navy SEAL team. Null was among 30 servicemembers who lost their lives when their CH-47 Chinook helicopter was shot down over Afghanistan in August 2011.
- Army Sgt. Derek McConnell, 23, who died in March of injuries he received from an IED blast in Afghanistan in 2011 after being a long-time patient at Walter Reed.
- Marine Cpl. Stanley Giza, who was among the first landing wave on Iwo Jima on Feb. 19, 1945, during WWII. Born in 1925, Giza joined the Marines when he turned 18, and a year later, was assigned to the 4th Marine Division, also known as the “Fighting Fourth.”
- Marine 1st Sgt. Luke Mercardante, 35, who was killed in April 2008, who was killed by an IED attack on his vehicle after switching spots with another Marine.
- Army Pfc. Gavin Colburn, 20, who died shielding a fellow soldier when their truck was hit by an IED in Iraq in April 2005.
- Army Sgt. Breinne Travers Sullivan, 34, of the National Guard, who was on her second tour of duty in Afghanistan when she was injured in an IED attack.
- Army Pfc. Cody Orr, 21, who was killed in 2004 when his vehicle was hit by struck an IED in Taji, Iraq. Cody had joined ROTC in middle school, followed by ROTC in high school, in hopes of serving his country.
- Navy Lt. Florence Choe, 35, who was killed in 2009 by an Afghan soldier while jogging on the outskirts of Forward Operating Base Shaheen in northern Afghanistan’s Balkh province.
For more information, visit www.warriorcanineconnection.org.