Working with veterans can be aggravating. I have already vented a few times about the frustration created by the exhausting bureaucracy that is the Veterans Administration. At times I am guilty of joining the throngs outside the proverbial VA gates, shouting loudly while hoisting my pitchfork and torch calling for someone’s head. And then someone comes along who humbles me.
Instead of yelling and gnashing of teeth, this someone is always guilty of just quietly doing something that helps my brothers and sisters in arms. Being productive instead of being loud is always humbling. In my old life we called this “leadership by example.” Their work should inspire introspection and self evaluation about our own contributions to the cause.
This week’s humbling hero is Kathy Hecht, who started Salute of Service, a 501C3 non-profit that helps veterans acquire and train service dogs. There are many such efforts across this country, but this one is in our own backyard and is therefore even more special.
Before meeting Kathy and her organization I had already witnessed the fruits of her labors. A young Marine who battled severe anxiety is now able to venture into this world thanks to a service dog trained by Salute of Service. Hearing this Marine’s story, which I might get permission to tell someday, will cause you to get something in your eye. At least it did mine, for there was no other explanation for the stinging and tears.
I was fortunate enough to attend the graduation ceremony for Salute of Service’s last graduating class. Six dogs are now certified to lead their respective veteran into this world. They are trained to deal with both specific medical issues and with the general challenges any of our four-legged friends must face in order to be socially acceptable in public places.
Salute of Service is not some fly-by-night internet operation that will hand out a service dog “certificate” in exchange for a few bucks. As much as I would like to take my beloved dachshunds with me wherever I go, I have spoiled them and I know they would never receive Kathy’s stamp of approval. They are good dogs, but there is no way they could sit quietly under the table at a restaurant that served anything that smelled even remotely like bacon. Nor could I will them not to bark at other dogs or refrain from sniffing their new friend’s backside. That’s my way of explaining that service dogs are not pets. Kathy has a different way, informing the recent graduates that they should now contact their insurance companies and have their four-legged companions insured as very expensive medical equipment.
There were two different aspects of the graduation ceremony. The first was the fellowship of veterans. When you get a group of vets together the usual nonsense of life tends to get stripped away rather quickly. Friends are made in seconds. And these friends can cook. There was lumpia enough to feed an army. If you don’t know what lumpia is, you have obviously never served. Every military inspired potluck I have ever encountered has been blessed to have someone in attendance who is familiar with Philippine cuisine. The world is a better place for it.
The second part of the graduation was watching the veterans accept the training certificates on behalf of their service dog. The veterans were proud. And I think the service dogs were proud as well.
One dog, Wasto, received two certificates. The first was of course the standard declaration of successful completion of the program. The second was for responding appropriately when her handler, David, had a potentially life-threatening medical emergency. Wasto, like a good veteran herself, followed her training and helped take care of her human. I’m not sure who smiled bigger, David or Wasto. If you are going to argue with me that dogs can’t smile I can’t even talk to you right now. Wasto knew what she did.
I am not one to beg for money. So I won’t. But if you proclaim to love veterans or love dogs, or if you love them both, I would encourage you to check out Salute of Service and consider making a donation.
If you are a veteran who might benefit from a service dog, then you need to connect with Kathy Hecht. If you have a dog that you think will make a good service dog, Kathy will test it to see if it is a pet or a potential life saver. If you don’t have a dog, Kathy will help you find one.
She is a woman of few words, but when she does speak I listen. And her actions speak even louder than her words. The evidence is in the smiling faces, veteran and K9 alike, that are better off thanks to her efforts.
I love veterans. I say it all the time. But Kathy’s deeds practically scream love, and I admire her for it.