David E. Sharpe, a senior airman in the United States Air Force, has an unfortunately all too familiar story of suffering and loss following a military deployment in 2002 to Saudi Arabia. The brave and selfless war veteran suffered residual trauma after his return home, marked by self-medication through alcohol and uncontrolled anger and violent outbursts. In the midst of Sharpe’s suffering, he took a friend’s advice and adopted a puppy, and three months later, with a gun pointed in the veteran’s mouth and his finger on the trigger, that dog would be the one to save his life.
Sharpe said about that defining moment, “This little pup, who was maybe six months old at the time, came up and licked my ear, which distracted me so I took the gun out of my mouth to ask, ‘What did you do that for?’ And then she came over and sat down in my lap and put her head on my right thigh.” He added, “The pistol was on my left. I understood it was an ultimatum to choose her or to take my life. I chose her, and I never looked back.” That fateful day would act as inspiration for Sharpe’s founding of the Companion’s for Heroes organization, which pairs veterans, active duty military personnel, emergency first responders, and their families with rescue dogs.
Alive, well and working in counterintelligence, Sharpe says pairing a military veteran with a rescue dog is the first step in introducing him/her back into society. He said, “They choose the dog themselves from the shelter, and if it works out well—and we have a 98 percent success rate—they have made a good choice. Then they learn how to train their dog, and they are empowered by that. And then they start making other choices—to go back to school, to take advantage of the GI Bill, to get a job.”
The pairing of Sarge, a rescue dog, and Lance Cpl. Jason Allen, a U.S. Marine Corps sniper who did tours in Africa, South America, and the Middle East and was suicidal and immobilized by pain from a road side bomb, is another incredible success story. Allen said about his pairing with Sarge, “I had been told by the doctor that I should give up physical activity because they couldn’t manage my pain, but when we got Sarge, it’s not like you can’t play with this dog. And he needs to be walked, so we walk. Sarge has given me a new purpose. He’s not a good dog, he’s a great dog.”
Over 6,000 veterans a year commit suicide and every eight seconds a shelter animal is euthanized. These numbers are staggering, and Sharpe’s goal is to pair all returning veterans with a rescue dog to help foster healing and reintegration into society. He says, “The thing about having a dog is you’re not a disabled dog owner. You’re just a dog owner. And they are there with complete and unconditional love.”
Just another story about how animals and humans can save one another through unconditional love.
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