CHICAGO, July 8, 2017 —
About 265 wounded, ill and injured service members and veterans have been competing in the 2017 Department of Defense Warrior Games here throughout the week. But most of them would tell you the stars of the games have been the athletes' service dogs.
Navy Chief Petty Officer Ron Condrey, who recently retired after 25 years of service, received his service dog, Via, from the non-profit organization Rebuilding Warriors a few weeks ago. Condrey has 5,000 skydiving jumps under his belt, and he said he wanted to share his love of jumping with his new companion.
"Ron started introducing her to the plane, going up into the plane and coming back down and then actually jumping out of the plane," his wife, Nicole, said. "During her first jump, you should've seen her coming down as she was coming toward her first landing. She saw people cheering her on, and her tail was wagging. Her head was on a swivel, looking around and smiling. They landed, he unclipped her, and she just jumped up and licked his face. She ran to me and licked me, and then ran to the team owner. It was like she was thanking everybody. It was pretty cute."
Condrey jumped with Via into the opening ceremony for the DoD Warrior Games. It was Via's fourth jump. Condrey, his wife and Via will be joining a professional skydiving team to raise awareness for military service animals and for Rebuilding Warriors. Via is getting her own custom-made skydiving vest.
Condrey said Via helped him at the Warrior Games with the crowds when he was overwhelmed and when he had trouble oversleeping his alarm because of his medication.
Medically retired Army Sgt. Christina Gardner has had Moxie, a golden retriever, for seven years.
"She's for assistance, as well as for seizure alert and response, so she helps a lot with detecting and alerting me to my seizures and then fetching and carrying things," Gardner said.
"She's pretty awesome," she added. "She's loving all the attention and everything, but it's funny. Sometimes when she knows it's a task I ask her to do that I can do for myself, she just gives me a look like, ‘Are you kidding me? Go do it yourself.'"
Moxie is the only service dog here for Team Army, so Gardner said she's become the team mascot. "Everybody's been loving on her. She's getting very spoiled. She loves this attention," Gardner said.
Moxie is wearing the Army combat uniform Gardner was wearing when she was injured. "The Red Cross at Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center] takes our uniform after we're injured and makes that into her uniform," Gardner said. "It puts her in uniform, too. She's my battle buddy everywhere I go. She serves just as much as I do."
Chelsea is an American bulldog-pitbull mix that medically retired Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ryan Shannon has had for three years. He got her a hot pink vest, he said, because everybody thinks she is a boy.
"When she graduated from service dog training, they asked what color of vest we should get her, and I said, ‘Give me the hottest pink vest you've got,'" he said. She still gets called a boy all the time."
He turned to Chelsea. "What do I have to do to make sure they know you're a girl?" Shannon asked the dog.
On her vest, Chelsea wears Shannon's rating badge and a chief pin he received from his first chief. "When I retired, I was trying to make chief, and he told me, ‘You're a chief in my eyes,' so he gave me his anchors," Shannon said. She also wears his submarine dolphins and warfare qualifications. "I did a lot to get those things; they're staying with me for life," he said.
Shannon said Chelsea is like a cat sometimes. "She sleeps when she's not needed, but she's still very much a dog, so she wants to see all the other dogs, and everybody wants to pet her. That's the one rule I break when I'm at the Warrior Games. I figure she's here for everybody else, too," he said.
Medically retired Air Force Senior Airman Hannah Stolberg has had Valhalla, a Catahoula mix, for three years.
"He's dual-trained to help me physically up and down the stairs when I fall, for stability, and for [post-traumatic stress disorder]," Stolberg said.
"He's very intuitive to how I feel," she said. "Service dogs in general become an extension, like another limb. When you touch a service dog, you are basically touching another person, an extension of them. When people ask me if it's OK to pet him, it's usually OK if he's not working. Just ask before you touch. I'm always open to questions about him and the things he does, as long as it's in a respectful manner."
She said she named him Valhalla because she loves Norse mythology. "The way I look at him is he is my little piece of heaven here," she added. "He's my heaven."
Valhalla has been "amazing" at the Warrior Games, he's been amazing," Stolberg said. "I fell this morning, and he was already tucked into his spot, but he came running out to help me up. He wakes me up from my nightmares every night, and as exhausted as he is, he never fails to meet any need I have."
Lola, a Labrador retriever-springer spaniel mix, has been with medically retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Eric Fisher for the past three years.
"She's meant a lot in my recovery," Fisher said. "She's given me the ability to actually be out in public. She's a huge part of my life. She's with me 24/7. I help her out with some of her anxieties, and she helps me out with a lot of mine. It's kind of a partnership. It works really well."
Freedom, a standard poodle, sported a red, white and blue Mohawk hairstyle for the Fourth of July weekend and carries his own water bowl. His owner is medically retired Navy air crewman Brett Parks.
"We both have similar personalities; we're both a little bit clumsy," Parks said. "It's amazing we were matched up together, because he likes to cuddle. He's bubbly. He's happy, but he's also very calm and low-key -- a laid back kind of dog."
Parks said Freedom helps to pick things up for him when he drops them, and if he falls, Freedom helps to pick him up. "He's also an extra set of eyes and ears. He's got my six," Parks said. "He's the celebrity here at the games. I always joke with people that if I wasn't walking around with Freedom, no one would know who I was. They don't know my name. He's way more popular than I am. I'm OK with that."
Parks was on a two-year waiting list for a service dog, but after six months, a space opened up. He thought he was going to get a German shepherd or a Rottweiler, he said, and then he heard he was getting a poodle.
"I was like, ‘Whoa, no. But I looked up standard poodles and saw they were originally bred as hunting dogs, and now I love Freedom. I wouldn't trade him for the world. Now I want all poodles," he said.
Getting a Service Dog
All of the owners recommended getting a service dog and talked to their fellow athletes at the games from the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Coast Guard, Air Force, U.S. Special Operations Command and the United Kingdom and Australian armed forces who may be considering getting one.
"Service dogs are invaluable in helping warriors with the daily struggles they go through, whether it's physical, mental [or] psychological. The canine is there to help in every facet, from physical companion to emotional regulation," Condrey said.
"There's people here who are on the fence about getting a service dog or might not want a service dog, but when they see ours and get to interact with them and see how we're doing better because we have service dogs, it send the message that it's OK to have them," Parks said. "They're just great companions, especially on the road. You're on a plane by yourself, in a terminal by yourself, in a hotel, and then there's the welcome addition that they're just very kind dogs. Not every dog can be a service dog. It's takes a special one. Very few dogs graduate. They have to be kind, patient and docile, and that's what all of them are. Freedom's been a lifesaver for me."
(Follow Shannon Collins on Twitter: @CollinsDoDNews)