Chris Hardy remembers the moment he realised that dogs could change lives. But he has to take a deep breath and work to hold back tears to tell the story.
Hardy, a dog trainer for the US Defense Department in Afghanistan in 2006, was making a routine trip to a field hospital to pick up supplies, along with his dog, Dirk. A nurse was holding a badly injured baby; the infant was burned on her face, neck and body. She suddenly reached out to pet Dirk, her face lighting up with a smile.
Hardy was told later that until that moment, the child had stoically endured treatment, never showing emotion.
Her interaction with Dirk in that brief moment prompted a new connection in her life – and in Hardy’s. He and Dirk returned several times and were asked by hospital personnel if they could start visiting some of their military patients. The experiences “really got me”, he said.
Hardy, an Eastern Shore native who served 11 years in the 82nd Airborne Division, returned home from that and several other deployments with powerful memories and, unfortunately, post-traumatic stress disorder. Remembering the healing power of Dirk, he decided to help fellow injured vets by training service dogs for them.
Now the executive director at US Kennels Inc in Salisbury, Maryland, the United States, Hardy took part Monday (May 30) in the 55th annual Memorial Day ceremony at Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens in Timonium, where he was honoured with a plaque and a donation to his organisation.
“It is our tradition to recognise Maryland organisations and institutions that support our veterans and underscore the true meaning of Memorial Day,” Jack Mitchell, president of Dulaney Valley Memorial Gardens, said in a statement.
In 2017, Hardy and his wife, Mirela, started the nonprofit US Kennels. They rescue dogs from shelters and match them with veterans who need help from a devoted companion. They provide a year of training for veterans and their dogs at their facility, along with food, veterinary care and all the supplies they need, at no charge to the veterans.
The organisation has matched around 50 veterans with canine companions, and they have a waiting list for more.
Sam Landis of Greenwood, Delaware, an Army veteran who has PTSD, has trained since August at US Kennels with her mixed-breed dog, Bodhi, who she jokes was a “streetwalker” that ended up at the Wicomico County Humane Society shelter in Maryland.
The dog keeps a protective bubble around her, she says, and “gets me to a better space”. He can predict her panic attacks and places his paws on her lap for gentle compression if she doesn’t feel well. Like a guardian angel, he never leaves her side.
With help from Bodhi, Landis said, her world is expanding and becoming a less frightening place.
Danray Atkinson, a volunteer and lead trainer for US Kennels, was one of its first graduates.
He retired from the Army in 2014 after 25 years and five combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.
His dog, Gus, is trained to provide comfort and stability during the panic attacks and seizures that Atkinson has as a result of PTSD.
Relying on Gus is “like having a battle buddy with you all the time; he’s always got your back. This programme has literally saved my life”, Atkinson says.
In return, helping someone in need is the way he gets paid, he said. “That’s all I need.”
Monday’s ceremony at Dulaney Valley honoured service members with ties to Maryland who have died during the past year, as well as all members of the military killed in the line of duty and people killed in the Sept 11 terrorist attacks.
Those who were specifically recognised included US Navy Hospital Corpsman 1st Class Sarah F. Burns of Severna Park, US Air Force Airman 1st Class Dewayne A. Stevens of Chester in Queen Anne’s County, and Navy Lt j.g. Aaron P. Fowler of Oklahoma, a 2018 graduate of the Naval Academy in Annapolis.
Burns was among five crew members killed in August in a helicopter crash during a training mission off San Diego. Stevens died in March at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada, while Fowler died in April during training at Marine Corps Base Hawaii.
Hardy’s faithful companion, a three-year-old Newfoundland named Brody, accompanied him to Monday’s event.
“There’s no medicine like a dog. They save lives like you wouldn’t believe,” he said. – Tribune News Service/The Baltimore Sun/Barbara Haddock Taylor