Meet Class #273
We recently celebrated the graduation of Class 273. This incredible group of veterans represents four branches of military service, and we are inspired by their grit and positivity. Together with their new service dog partners, we know that this class will succeed in all that they pursue.
Let’s Meet Class #273!
Justin Derhammer and his service dog, Zara are ready to challenge each other to live each day to its fullest. Justin, an Army veteran deployed twice to Iraq in his five years of service, can’t get over how similar Zara is to him. While on a walk in a park at a rocky area that led to a boat ramp, the other dogs in class seemed cautious about the rocks. But not Zara, his strong-willed yellow Labrador. “She wasn’t afraid; she hopped right up on the rocks and wanted to try,” Justin says. “That’s like me, I want to try things, too.” Now with Zara by his side urging him to get out and try new things, Justin is ready.
Taylor Swan volunteered to serve in Vietnam and was an electrician’s mate in the Navy for 10 years before signing on as a Merchant Marine. Taylor always had a dog by his side but never a service dog. After his beloved Labrador, Chloe, died, he quit going for walks because people would ask him about her. Stella, his first service dog, is a bright-eyed, kind, and affectionate black Labrador that came along just in time.
Michael Edmondson served on U.S. Navy nuclear ballistic submarines as an engineering laboratory technician managing radiological controls, traveling the globe through 27 deployments to undisclosed locations. After a traumatic event left him shaken, Michael tried to ignore it. But panic attacks, increasing reclusiveness, physical shaking, and finally encouragement from his wife led him to Southeastern Guide Dogs and his loving, affectionate, and confident service dog, a black Lab named Rocky. “Rocky’s already changed my life,” he says.
As an Air Force veteran of over 14 years, Ed Franco served as an air and ground intelligence officer and was deployed to the Middle East, Central America, Africa, Central Asia, and South America. The Air Force left its memories, and as he managed anxiety and sleeplessness, his wife recommended that Ed find a service dog to ground him. Ed has been matched with Nancy, a beautiful, affectionate black Labrador that calms him. “She’s a fantastic animal. I’m so grateful!” he says.
Waylon Steinman retired from the Army after 18 years of service as an 18 Bravo Special Forces Weapons Sergeant deployed to the Middle East. Waylon has a few friends with service dogs and decided he might like to get one for himself, but had no idea what to expect. And then he met Pilgrim, a loveable Labrador who has a calming effect on his hypervigilance.
Jason Hess and his Army military police unit formed a tight bond during their two deployments to Iraq. And like his friends, Jason has worked hard trying to shake the PTSD that followed him home from his 14 years in the Army Reserves. So, Jason took a break from his full-time job, said goodbye to his wife and two young children, and trusted Southeastern Guide Dogs to match him with a fun, bubbly black Lab named Lee. As Jason returns home to the busyness of work and family, Lee will be a calming presence.
In 1969 at the height of the Vietnam War, 19-year-old Philip Mantzke was drafted into the Army infantry and sent to leadership school in Vietnam. He later returned stateside, his body full of pieces of a rocket-propelled grenade and 15 clips permanently holding his insides together. “That was the easy part,” he says. “The hard part is the PTSD. I get up every morning and see my battle scars…” And now he’s met Gladdy, his sweet black Lab service dog. “It’s like falling in love all over again,” he says. “I couldn’t have chosen a better companion.”
Air Force veteran Kathy Payne was stationed in Germany during the Cold War, where terrorist activity and multiple bombings meant she had to be alert and vigilant at all times. For Kathy, a trip to the grocery store requires her to constantly map the aisles, changing paths whenever there is a perceived threat. But her service dog, a beautiful, engaging black Labrador named Beverly, is helping to change her protocol. The two walked around a mall together recently and Kathy felt relief that Beverly had her back.
Stephanie Z. is one tough Marine, and her resilience helped her survive two deployments to Afghanistan. She has tapped every resource including alternative medicine and a higher power, yet despite progress, she couldn’t shake her haunting hypervigilance. Suddenly she felt a spiritual nudge to look into a service dog, and that’s what brought her to a laid back, attentive yellow Lab named Sookie to help her overcome that last obstacle.
Class 273, congratulations on all of your dedication and determination, thank you for your service to our country, and welcome to the Southeastern Guide Dogs family!