Benjamin, a fluffy golden retriever, watched Navy veteran Joseph Worley intently today at the Southold American Legion, his gentle eyes following Worley’s every move, looking trustingly into his face and waiting for his next command.
Never once leaving his side.
The pair attended a Veterans Day service held at Southold’s American Legion Post 803. During the service, the Ladies Auxiliary presented a $10,000 check to the Guide Dog Foundation for the Blind’s America’s VetDogs program; a portion of those funds were garnered through a private donation, while others were raised through fairs and other events.
Worley was presented with the check by members of the Ladies Auxiliary Florence Wagner and Ada Horton.
America’s VetDogs is a Smithtown-based not-for-profit organization that serves the needs of disabled veterans; VetDogs provides dogs for those who are blind or have low vision; hearing dogs; service dogs for those with other physical disabilities; facility dogs as part of the rehabilitation process in military and VA hospitals, and PTSD dogs to help mitigate effects of post-traumatic stress syndrome, with an eye toward providing physical and emotional support.
Worley demonstrated how his four-legged friend is trained to help in all situations. A dog can even help a veteran who may have fallen, but Benjamin helps Worley primarily with mobility, bracing, and retrieval.
Worley was only 23 years old when his life changed forever on September 17,2004.
Serving as a Navy corpsman, he was the medic attached to a Marine unit.
“My job was to take care of people,” he said. “I loved what I did. I went from being the guy whose job it was to help others, from being young and healthy, to having to start over, as a whole new person I knew nothing about.”
As his medical convoy was heading back to base in Falluhaj, Iraq, the first vehicle hit an improvised explosive device.
Worley rushed to help his wounded comrades, ran a few yards, and was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, which tore off his left leg.
Next, he was shot six times.
Initially reported killed in action, he received the Bronze Star for valor, as well as a Purple Heart.
Worley lost his left leg above the knee, and suffered severe damage to his right leg and ankle.
He spent almost two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center recovering from his injuries. Although he wears a prosthetic C-Leg, his severe injuries mean that he spends much of his time in a wheelchair.
As a young father with a three-month-old daughter he’d never met, facing an uncertain future, Worley was soon to meet a canine who would change his life and become one of his best friends.
Worley, who lives in Georgia with his wife Angela and three children, was among the veterans who attended the first on-campus VetDogs class in October 2008, and today, is one of VetDogs’ most ardent ambassadors. Serving as a veterans relations liaison, he travels the country speaking to students, and at veterans’ conventions and trade shows, about how the VetDogs program can change lives.
Describing his transition back into civilian life, Worley said he found that all went “surprisingly smoothly.”
But with a baby at home, and later, a toddler who would hide his shoes, Worley said Benjamin was a lifesaver, affording him the ability to move freely. “It blew my mind,” he said, of the impact the dog made on his life. “He’s a part of our family. Anytime you’re sad, being around friends makes you feel better. I can’t imagine what my life would have been like without him.”
Benjamin helps him get down on the floor to play with his kids, and helps him when he’s starting to fall.
“He has saved me multiple times on uneven ground,” he said.
Benjamin is by his side to assist with a long list of little things. “It isn’t flashy. There are no fireworks.” But the dog helps him to mitigate his injuries and live a life of joy and dignity.
And, make no mistake, Worley said, the months of training at America’s VetDogs are critical, because a misstep in traffic could prove treacherous. “Your life is in his hands.”
For some returning veterans, who might not have the fierce love of family and friends he’s been blessed with, a dog can mean, and be, everything. Some, mired in depression, find the only reason to get out of bed in the morning is “that cold nose on your elbow. They pull people out of the sinkhole of depression,” Worley said.
Dogs not only give veterans a schedule to keep, but unconditional love and support when the world might seem dark. Worley has seen firsthand how the presence of a VetDog has helped someone go from living as a recluse, to being able to speak in public again.
“For a lot of guys, this might be their only reliable support system,” he said. “A non-judgmental companion.”
The dogs can even help with nightmare interruption for those suffering with post-traumatic stress syndrome; they jump up and remove the sheets or blankets. It’s too dangerous for dogs to jump on top of someone who is suffering with PTSD during a violent episode, Worley said.
Katherine M. Fritz, director of development for America’s VetDogs, said a new pilot program is being developed in conjunction with Western Kentucky University just for PTSD, with dogs trained specifically to handle those instances.
A command, “rest,” is given to dogs who are trained to handle PTSD, so that if a veteran is overwhelmed, the dog will put their head on their arm to calm them.
“It’s an immediate connection with the veteran,” she said. “It brings them back into themselves,” something that’s a godsend for so many who might feel alienated or alone, pushed out of society. “It helps them to reconnect,” she said.
The dogs trained in PTSD are also taught to shake a paw, something not often taught to service dogs. But in this case, a dog shaking paws can help divert attention from the veteran who might feel overwhelmed by too much attention or focus on his injuries.
Initially, many veterans exhibited signs of traumatic brain injury and seizure disorders, now, others have had been faced with severe spinal cord injuries and loss of limbs, as well as PTSD, she said. Other veterans suffer vision and hearing loss, she said.
While Worley said he’s had no trouble facing the public while wearing a prosthetic, there are times that are challenging, such as airport security, with 200 people watching as TSA agents scanned his leg.
“It made me uncomfortable, and I don’t get uncomfortable,” he said, adding he can’t imagine how it would make others feel. But with a beautiful golden retriever beside you, Worley says the focus shifts. “I run into some of the Ladies Auxiliary and they say, ‘Oh, there’s Benjamin! What’s your name again?” He smiled.
Worley also took the time to demonstrate Benjamin’s ability to help him with mobility, bracing, and retrieval.
Local Scouts watched the presentation and after, those attending had questions for Worley. Both Worley and Fritz explained the organization provides a lifetime of care.
Benjamin, now 10 years old, has a white muzzle and is content to rest peacefully while Worley speaks, his eyes tired.
When it’s time for Benjamin to retire, he will be able to stay with Worley, who will be placed on the short list for another dog, although the list is long.
The dogs help all veterans, with any injuries or disabilities, including an elderly woman who just needed a companion during the aging process.
Also at today’s presentation, members of the American Legion spoke, thanking veterans for their service and painting a future of peace, with the NJROTC also in attendance. Scouts helped cook up and serve hot dogs for the guests.
Southold Town Supervisor Scott Russell also spoke, thanking the veterans for serving with integrity and courage, including those that are in harm’s way today, to protect the nation. The coming Thanksgiving holiday would not be possible, without their sacrifice to keep the United States safe, he said.
To those “heroes, both those that sit before us and those that didn’t make it home,” Russell said. “We honor you all.”