Extraordinary Dogs, Transforming the Lives of Veterans and Families
Class 296 consists of veterans who lived and trained on our beautiful campus and those who trained in their home and communities. They include service dogs for PTSD and other disabilities, emotional support dogs for veterans needing help and friendship, Gold Star Family dogs for military families who have lost a loved one, and facility therapy dogs offering comfort to veterans and healthcare workers.
Thanks to our community of friends, all of these dogs are a gift—a priceless gift to the veterans and families who need them. Thanks, friends!
Meet the Veterans and Families of Class 296
Rey Crespo served as an Army combat engineer, and later as the warrant officer in a combat support hospital. After deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, he realized that the things he witnessed brought about post-traumatic stress disorder. Struggling with nightmares for years, Rey never felt at ease in his own bed. But after only a few nights with his service dog C.W., Rey experienced a new kind of rest: one that felt safe and secure. “You start seeing the improvement in your sleep pattern,” Rey says. “I think that’s amazing, you know, just by having him on the bed.” Rey, who is now a preacher, looks forward to getting out with C.W. and enjoying places he once avoided. This positive duo has plenty of adventures ahead!
Ben Cecil spent two decades serving honorably in the Air Force, with about 10 of those years on active duty and as a reservist. He joined the Air National Guard in 2012, retiring a year ago. His career ranged from serving with the military police, working as crew chief, and eventually working in the intelligence field. Now, a sweet, attentive service dog named Roxy has entered Ben’s life, bringing lots of energy and joy. One of the things Ben enjoys is taking this lovable dog on morning walks together with his wife. “We’re going to be busy,” Ben says of his future with Roxy. With his dog by his side, this team is ready for new adventures.
Tony David began his 10-year Air Force career as an air traffic controller and eventually worked as a flight engineer. He flew air-support missions on the AC-130W aircraft and deployed several times, visiting 10 countries in a two-year period. After medically retiring, Tony completed his application to Southeastern Guide Dogs, which led him to his service dog, Chenille. With Chenille’s help, Tony is excited to take care of the grocery shopping for his family and feel comfortable in public again. “I can’t express how thankful I am for Chenille; she is a fantastic dog,” he says. “It’s unbelievable to have somebody watching out for you. It’s really special.”
Navy veteran Matthew Fugett says his new service dog, Smokey, has two modes. As soon as he puts her vest on, Smokey is all business. (And she knows where the treat pouch is!) But once her vest comes off, Smokey is all cuddles. “She turns into a little love potato,” he says. Matthew served in a trauma center on the Marine Corps base Camp Lejeune for about five years. After a recommendation from his psychiatrist, he decided to pursue getting a service dog, and now he’s glad he did. “She’s been really good, and she helps me calm down.” If Matthew starts to feel discomfort in certain situations, Smokey picks up on it quickly. Her attention and response help him redirect his focus onto her, which eases his feelings of stress. Smokey also helps him relax at night when he’s trying to fall asleep. “If you think you need a service dog, just reach out and apply for one,” Matthew advises.
Army veteran Kristin Sells enjoys her big city life but doesn’t like getting on airplanes. So, when she got the news that she was matched with her new service dog, Conway, that was the gentle push she needed. “This was just about the only thing that would get me on an airplane,” she admits. Kristin served for seven years as a combat medic and deployed once to the Ukraine. She has a caring heart, and being with Conway helps bring purpose back to her life. “It makes you care, and care more about yourself, too,” she explains. “I have to be okay in order to care for him.” And Conway cares for Kristin right back. “He’s like my shadow,” she says. “We’re going to do a lot together…I can’t wait to go hiking, and to ride the subway with a buddy, and feel safer and more comfortable.”
The veteran who received Sage prefers to remain anonymous but says he is exactly the sort of dog they wanted to help mitigate their post-traumatic stress. “I needed someone to hug me before I knew what I needed, and he has done exactly that. He watches me all the time to make sure I’m okay. I woke up from a nightmare our second night together to find him pressed against me, head on my chest, and hugging my arm. When I’m having a really bad day, I just want him to cuddle with me,” they say. “He has already made a huge difference for me. He has made me very happy.”
Walter Gibson, a disabled Navy veteran who suffered traumatic brain injury during his years on nuclear weapons submarines, lived with PTSD’s anxiety and depression for decades. Memories of fires, flooding, and other undersea horrors haunted him. He didn’t think of the benefits of a service dog until his VA doctors recommended that he get a four-legged battle buddy. Now Bonzo makes challenges more bearable. They go shopping and for walks in the woods together. “Bonzo is a big cream puff,” Walter says. “He just loves to hug, play, and is nice and mellow. He couldn’t be better suited to my personality.”
As a 29-year veteran of the Air Force, Daniel McGuire witnessed his share of combat in some of the most dangerous places in the world. After 12 deployments that took him to the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and Afghanistan, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, and anxiety began to take hold. Now, a mellow yellow Lab named Whitcomb is showing Daniel how to relax. “We’re very good at doing nothing,” Daniel chuckles. Whitcomb is Daniel’s new emotional support dog, and the companionship has given this vet a new mission. “I instantly wake up with an unavoidable purpose,” says Daniel. “He needs me to survive, but really I need him. Once we get moving, it sets us up for success the whole day.”
As the Director of Psychological Health Services for the 140th Wing of the Colorado Air National Guard, Virginia Howard helps members and their families overcome struggles with anxiety, depression, suicide, and PTSD. She is the only mental health provider and suicide prevention manager for 1,500 service members and their families. It’s a tall order, but thankfully, Virginia has a helping paw from facility therapy dog, Midnight. With her ability to stay calm, Midnight does an outstanding job as the base’s first therapy dog. “Midnight is so sweet,” Virginia says. “She is very engaging and loves people. She’s far-reaching in helping my ability to connect with people, so it’s a win-win.”
It took years of struggling with the emotional pain of post-traumatic stress disorder before Kelly Ericksen found her way to a loving, lifesaving service dog named Stanley. This former Air Force Academy and Department of Defense air traffic controller says she needed a strong partner to help her recover from stress-induced anxiety that resulted in serious open-heart surgery at the age of 40. Intense therapy and being with Stanley help her to face discomfort and pain while moving forward. “Stanley is like a mirror of me. I love people and so does he,” Kelly shares. Happily, things are working out for the better!
What happens when you’re only 8 years old and it seems that everyone you love has either died or disappeared? Your father was killed in a tragic truck accident while training with the Army in Hawaii on Mother’s Day in 2017. Then you lost two dogs that you adored. You moved to Florida, leaving behind your friends, and then your beloved brother left home for college. You feel scared and empty inside. This is the story of Cayleigh, whose mother, Jillian, despaired for her child—until they met a cuddly and unconditionally loving black Lab named Taylor. As a Gold Star Family dog, Taylor is the best medicine. Cayleigh now sleeps through the night. The ride home from school is filled with excitement and anticipation because Taylor is there. Cayleigh is making friends and feeling safe.
“From wings to retirement” is how former Navy wife Diane Kuepper describes the period of raising her children during her husband’s 20-year military career. This included his Pentagon assignment during the 9/11 terrorist attack. Vivid memories of military family life carry over to her work as a licensed clinical social worker and therapist with the Adolescent Mental Health clinic at the Okaloosa Outpatient Center, where almost all of her clients are military kids. To help them, Diane has a new assistant in Iris, her facility therapy dog. Whether comforting clients in trauma or helping a distressed youth express feelings, Iris is simply “love wrapped in fur.” Staff also seek out Iris every day. “We as therapists experience secondary trauma,” Diane explains. “Other therapists on the team also come in and ask to spend some time with Iris for her therapeutic companionship.”
Tim and his wife, Kristina, were devastated when they lost his brother, who was killed in a training accident while he was on active duty in the Navy. Longtime lovers of Labrador retrievers, they applied for a Gold Star Family dog. Meanwhile, a freak lightning storm set their home on fire and uprooted their lives. Help has arrived through a four-legged friend, and now Gold Star Family dog Dooley has refocused this family. Dooley brings plenty of affection along with a regular routine, stability, and a sense of purpose. Dooley’s unconditional love calms the children, while his high energy level encourages outdoor activities. He is one “valuable” the family will happily take back to their home when they can return again.