From pups to healers: Companions change wounded warriors’ lives

WASHINGTON — Can a furry, four-legged creature really help save a life? Many
wounded warriors and their spouses say, “yes.”

It’s in part thanks to the Warrior Canine Connection. The
pioneering program enlists recovering wounded service members to train service
dogs for fellow wounded members.

Rick Yount, a social worker of nearly 30 years, came up with the concept.

Yount jokes that 19 years ago, a golden retriever trained him — and taught
the value of dog therapy. He realized many wounded warriors were in desperate
need of the love and help provided by service dogs and thought the training
could be used as an intervention, helping wounded warriors train the dogs at
the same time.

“Who else would take the responsibility of training a service dog for
veteran more seriously, and more to heart, than a fellow veteran or warrior?”

The Training

WTOP caught up with trainers at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center
last spring.

That’s where we met three energetic puppies and the wounded warriors helping
train them to become full-service mobility dogs.

Black Labrador retriever brothers Sam and Indy were 16 months old then,
and Penny, a golden retriever, was just 10 months old — the “baby” of the

Over a two-year period, the dogs had to master 60 skills and tasks and meet
strict temperament and health requirements. A dog that’s
overly aggressive or anxious or tends to bark wouldn’t make the cut.

Not every dog makes it, but Sam, Indy and Penny prevailed.

Graduation Day

With a lot of military-style pomp and circumstance, Sam, Indy and Penny, along
with three other dogs, graduated on Oct. 25, becoming full-service mobility
Their tails wagged as they crossed the stage, but as usual, all three kept
their composure.

It was an emotional ceremony as the dogs transitioned from the “puppy parents”
who’ve looked after them since birth to their new forever homes.

It’s a bittersweet goodbye for many families, but an emotional and satisfying

The dogs have been paired with wounded service members who applied to the
program and were left with physical and mental wounds from

Here’s a video of Sam, Penny and Indy being presented on graduation day:

Indy’s New Human Companion

“He’s going to be so much help for me and I just can’t wait,” says U.S. Army
Retired Captain Jason Pak, 25, a West Point graduate, who’s been paired up
with Indy.

He saw his life change in an instant in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2012.

“I was on dismounted foot patrol, a typical, routine mission, and stepped on a
10-pound IED (improvised explosive device). It instantly took both of my legs
off. I’m a below-the-knee amputee on the left, an above-the-knee amputee on
the right, and missing a couple of fingers on my left hand,” Pak says.

After a year and nine months of grueling rehabilitation at Walter Reed, a
friend told him about the Warrior Canine
Connection service dog program.

“When I first met Indy, there was an instant connection — love at first
sight,” Pak says.

The large, strong, black Lab provides the stability Pak needs as a double
amputee while he still struggles with his new prosthetics.

Indy helps Pak with his balance through a technique known as “bracing.”

“He serves as a cane, in a way,” Pak explains. “When I’m on the ground and I
to try to
get up, I tell him, ‘Indy brace’ and that way I can apply pressure on
his shoulder blades and he will actually brace to that, and kind of lift me up
a little bit.”

The bracing also helps Pak use stairs when there isn’t a railing to hold onto.
Indy also picks up anything Pak may drop, such as keys or his cellphone.

The two are inseparable.

“He’s a great companion. Everywhere I go, he can go with me. He’s kind of my
best friend,” Pak says with a big smile on his face.

The two recently moved into a condominium in Southeast D.C. Pak says Indy is a
“people magnet” and they are adjusting easily and making new friends.

Penny’s New Human Companion

Retired Marine Corporal Nickolas Gervasoni couldn’t be happier to welcome
Penny into his life.

While Gervasoni was serving in the Marine Corps in 2012 in Afghanistan, he
seriously injured his back and plunged into darkness from anxiety and

“A year ago, I would not be here whatsoever,” Gervasoni says. “I
wouldn’t be out in a public place like this. I wouldn’t even think about it. I
was cooped up in my house pretty much night and day unless I was going to
medical appointments.”

During his therapy, he started working at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital with
the service dog program. He decided to put in an application through the
Warrior Canine Connection and was introduced to Penny.

“She pretty much can do anything you can think of,” he says. “She retrieves
items, she cuddles with me at night,” he says with a giggle. He admits he has
a much easier time sleeping these days.

His wife, Jennifer, says she’s amazed by the transformation.

“The biggest change is that he actually sleeps through the night without
having nightmares,” she says.

She’s thrilled to have her husband back.

“Just going grocery shopping; he hasn’t been shopping with me for two years,
so to even walk in the door is amazing. He’s more concerned about Penny [than]
himself,” she says.

Nick Gervasoni says the icing on the cake is that Penny even gets along with
aging cat, Shadow, in their Northern Virginia home.

“This morning, they jumped up on the bed together and Shadow the cat came
over and gave her a kiss on the forehead … can’t ask for any more than
that,” he jokes.

Penny, by the way, is famous in her own right. She has nearly 5,000
“likes” on her own Facebook

Sam’s New Human Companion

For these two big guys, life is good now.

Sam, a sturdy black Lab, is a lifesaver for Lt. Thomas Faulkenberry, of the
U.S. Coast Guard.

“I’ve been able to connect with my family in ways that I never have before,”
Faulkenberry says.

Enlisted in 1999, Faulkenberry deployed aboard his ship 11 times, serving
all over the world, including in Afghanistan and helping out in the aftermath
of Hurricane Katrina.

During his final deployment, Faulkenberry was badly injured during life-
endangering search and rescue dive operations. He was left with chronic
muscle-pain issues and was diagnosed with a rare disease.

“I lost my ability to exercise. When I would exercise, my kidneys would shut
down and I’d be hospitalized,” he says adding, “that, in turn led to major

During rehabilitation at Walter Reed, Faulkenberry started to work with the
service dogs when he realized how helpful they were to his recovery.

He was able to get off of some medications and began to feel better.

Faulkenberry, a big burly guy over six feet tall, applied for a service dog
of his own.

“It just so happened that Sam was in need of a partner, and he’s a big strong
guy, and they needed to place him with someone who could handle him, so it
worked out very well for us,” he says.

Faulkenberry says Sam brought a calmness to him and his family, though he
really explain how a dog has had such an impact. But he has one idea.

“It’s a perfect design of love. It’s unconditional. He doesn’t see my flaws,”
he says.

His wife, Mary, is experiencing the magic, too. “He’s been such a blessing to
family. Not only to Tommy but to our whole

She says they felt the impact of Sam’s presence immediately. “The first night
was with us, Tommy slept through the night and was
refreshed. That’s something that is kind of unexpected,” she says in awe.

The couple lives near Warrenton, Virginia, with their four boys, ages 6

“The boys love Sam,” Mary says, joking they now have something new to fight

Naming the dogs

Each dog that graduates and becomes a healer for a human through the Warrior
Canine Connection gets its name in a very special way.

Yount, executive director of the WCC, says each dog is named after a service
member killed in action.

Yount says the family of the lost service member gives its permission for
their son’s or daughter’s name to be given to a service dog, and says it’s
another powerful and rewarding part of the program.

Yount hopes to see the WCC expand even further and says anyone who wants to
help can offer their time, services or financial support.

Learn more about how you can help the Wounded Warrior

Check out a live WCC puppy cam, with puppies born Thanksgiving Day:

Broadcast live
streaming video on Ustream

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