BRUNSWICK, Ga. — Like many students, David Sharpe went on to college after graduating from Glynn Academy in 1997. But it wasn't long before fate came calling.
He soon left to join the Air Force. After all, Sharpe was a fifth-generation military man, with an innate passion to serve.
"I wanted to be an U.S. Army Ranger like my father. However, he persuaded me to serve in the Air Force instead. Dad told me that he 'served enough for both he and I' and he wanted me not to go into Special Ops like he did," he said.
Sharpe ended up with the U.S. Air Force Security Forces following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. His service was intense.
During his first deployment, he faced a number of life-threatening situations. One was a confrontation with a Taliban sympathizer who pointed a weapon in his face at a checkpoint.
The experiences took a toll and, like so many, he returned from the Middle East a broken man.
"I was going out and I'd end up embarrassing my buddies. I'd have outbursts and randomly start crying," he said.
Unbeknownst to him, he was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a condition that went undiagnosed for eight years. And because of it, Sharpe's life continued to spiral out of control — that is, until a chance encounter turned it all around.
"I was stationed in Virginia, and a buddy of mine told me he was going to look at a pit bull rescue and asked if I wanted to go with him. So I did," he said. "There were eight puppies in a chicken wire fence. There was one of them who ignored me ... so guess which one I picked. I took her home and thought, 'I'm going to make this dog love me.'"
It didn't take long. The puppy, whom Sharpe named Cheyenne, took to her new owner quickly.
"When I got her home, she got up on the couch beside me and laid her head on my leg," he said.
But even with his new four-legged friend, Sharpe was still a mental mess. The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms continued and, over time, intensified.
"I remember one night I had a night terror and I got up, went to the refrigerator and opened it. I hit my leg on something and I just started hitting it and yelling," he said. "Cheyenne came in and barked. She looked up at me with those big, puppy dog eyes. I told her to shut up and she barked again. I was always taught that the lady had the last word. I picked her up and took her to the bedroom with me and I just lost it. I broke down, started crying and told her everything."
The dog was there, listening and licking his tears. In the coming months, Cheyenne continued to show support in her sweet, silent way.
One night, she was there when Sharpe hit rock bottom.
"Cheyenne walked in and put her head on my lap, looked up at me and sighed," he said. "I realized that I was here for a reason."
Cheyenne's love saved Sharpe's life that night. And now, more than a decade later, she's still part of his family.
Today, Sharpe has realized his purpose in life. He married wife Jenny in 2010, and the couple now has a 9-month-old son, Dax. The family recently moved back to St. Simons Island, the 33-year-old's hometown.
He has since been treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he never forgot what his dog did for him. It's why he started Companions for Heroes, or C4H, a nonprofit organization he founded in 2009.
The organization matches service men and women with shelter dogs (and yes, sometimes cats).
"I saw a program on television about how service dogs help disabled veterans, and I knew how Cheyenne had helped me in my life," he said. "But getting a service dog takes over two years. Most vets are very stubborn and when we want something we want it now."
Shelter dogs are more easily available, but they are also animals who need a new lease on life — much like their human counterparts.
"And with service dogs, you only have a choice of a couple of breeds. With shelter dogs, there are different kinds of breeds," he said. "For vets, we've been told what to do our entire careers. We want to have a choice."
He did his research and even teamed up with experts at Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, D.C., to find the best way to match vets with shelter pets. Sharpe's hard work has paid off. Since the launch of Companions for Heroes, he has seen 121 successful animal-veteran matches.
They even match dogs with other public servants, like firefighters, police and other first responders — anyone who has served their country and community honorably.
The process, Sharpe says, is very easy.
To start, the veterans go online to the web site, www.companionsforheroes.org, and complete the application.
Then, they are contacted by the organization's counselors who make sure the veterans are ready for the responsibility animal adoption brings.
"It's just like adopting a child," Sharpe said.
From there, the service men or women go to the local shelter, one that has a contractual agreement with Companions for Heroes. Then they select an animal and complete the shelter's specific adoption process. The group then reimburses the veterans for adoption fees. They also give them a gift certificate for pet supplies and a year's worth of pet insurance with a national company.
"That's helpful in case the veteran has to move," Sharpe said.
But the aid doesn't end when the adoption is completed. Companions for Heroes stays in contact with the service men or woman after the adoption to make sure all is going well.
"We want to make it as simple as possible for them while they take on this new responsibility. We want them to be able to focus on this relationship," Sharpe said.
It may be additional responsibility, but the rewards are priceless.
Sharpe says the program makes sense. It will help to save countless lives, humans and animals.
"Nine and a half million veterans have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and those are the known cases. Twenty-three veterans commit suicide every day, and one shelter animal is euthanized every eight seconds," he said.
The statistics don't lie. And it further illustrates the need for a program like Companions for Heroes across the country. But as a Golden Isles native, Sharpe wants to be able to share his program and its successes with the people in the area.
To do that, he and Companions for Heroes have teamed up with the Humane Society of South Coastal Georgia, a no-kill animal adoption center, in Brunswick. He hopes to be able to provide both veterans and homeless animals with a second chance at life.
"This is my way of giving back. I've been all over the world. I was blessed to grow up here and now to be back. I want to be able to give back to my hometown," Sharpe said.