All Paws On Deck

A few years ago I wrote a blog post for an online magazine that is no more.  Here is that original article I wrote about the Walter Reed Facility Dogs.  It should be updated, because so much more has happened and we have so many new dogs to love, but this is the original:


On August 8, 2011, when my son, Derek, was in the SICU at National Naval Medical Center (now Walter Reed National Military Medical Center)(also known as Walter Reed Bethesda), which is located in Bethesda, Maryland, I was given news that shook me to the core. Derek was septic. His blood pressure was beyond dangerously low. The doctors rushed him off to the Operating Room to try to save him. It did not look good.

In a daze, Derek’s fiancée, Krystina, and I made our way down to Dunkin Donuts for a much needed cup of coffee. On the way back, I noticed two dogs walking through the lobby of Building Ten. I commented to Krystina that they were so cute.

The Golden Retriever’s ears perked up, and she “dragged” her handler over to us. It was as if she knew I needed her. She herded me into the chairs until I sat and began to pet her. Her buddy sat beside her, getting pets from Krystina. For the next few minutes, we were lost in the comfort of the beautiful creatures before us.

Such is the job of Walter Reed Bethesda’s facility therapy pups. They not only give comfort to the patients they visit daily, they help the families deal with hospital life and loss, and help reduce stress for the staff. Eyes light up, treats come out, and smiles abound when the dogs walk onto the floor. They truly are the facilities’ most cherished, if not most important visitors.

At Walter Reed Bethesda, there are three full-time therapy pups (Laura Lee, Sgt Archie, and Bobbie), and one part-time (Susie). All were donated to the hospital by Southeastern Guide Dogs, which is based in Florida. Paws For Patriots is a program started in 2006 by Southeastern, and its goal is to work with service members recovering from injuries. The dog program in Bethesda was started by Dr. David Bitonti in 2007.

The puppies, who are bred by Southeastern, spend about fourteen months with a volunteer puppy raiser who teaches basic obedience and socialization. Upon their return to Southeastern, formal training, which lasts four to six months, teaches the pups what they need to know for their new career. The choice of career is based on individual temperament, and if the original choice does not work out, for whatever reason, the dogs are given a career change. Southeastern has placed dogs with the blind, veterans, firefighters and policemen, as well as with hospitals for therapy dogs.

Laura Lee, who lives with Patty Barry, a civilian employee at Walter Reed Bethesda, is a Golden Retriever. She came to Bethesda in 2008. As the sole therapy dog, she worked her paws to the bone. On June 4, 2010, her workload was eased by the addition of Cpl Archie, and in September 2010, Bobbie joined the ranks.

Archie was adopted by Amy O’Connor as a fifteen month old, German Sheppard puppy. “A German Sheppard was not what I had first expected to receive, but he quickly became a part of our family.” Although Amy now works as a Healthcare Resolutions Specialist at the facility, she is a social worker by training. Walking through the ICU, she saw the effect that Laura Lee had on patients and family members, as well as the staff. “She had a very calming influence,” she said. In the past, after 9/11, she saw how therapy dogs helped ease the family members who were grieving, so she willingly welcomed Archie into her family, and she relishes the work she does with him. In describing him she said he is a typical Marine, “He is focused and hard working. You will often see him scanning the perimeter to protect the other dogs, as well as the patients. He is always on alert.”

When Archie joined the facility, he was nicknamed “Corporal” Archie, but was promoted to “Sergeant” in March 2011. A full promotion ceremony honoring the newest Sergeant was performed by the Marines.

The therapy dogs at Walter Reed Bethesda are given ranks and wear proper uniform coats, made with love by Lily Burch, a nurse at the hospital. Laura Lee is a Rear Admiral (two star) and has her very own parking permit. She really is top dog. Archie is a Sergeant in the Marine Corps, and he is expected to change uniforms when the Marines do. He must wear his woodlands coat in the winter, and Amy makes sure his uniforms are in proper order. Bobbie is a Lieutenant Commander in the United States Navy Nurse Corps and proudly wears her uniform. “They know when the coat goes on, they are working,” said Bobbie’s proud Mom, Lisa Bitonti, a volunteer at the facility. Lisa is often seen on Cookie Fridays, handing out cookies on the floor, but she is best known for her role with Bobbie. “We love visiting the patients, family and staff,” she said. She makes sure Bobbie keeps all her appointments, including special occasions.

The fourth working dog is a sweet, Golden-Lab mix, Susie, who mostly works in the Pentagon with a Sergeant Major in the Army. She recently joined the staff after the Sergeant Major’s prior therapy dog, Naoma, suddenly became ill and passed away around Thanksgiving 2011. Her death was felt throughout the hospital, and a ceremony in her honor was held in the Garden of Peace (located by the Chapel at Walter Reed Bethesda), where a stone in her memory sits.

Laura, Archie and Bobbie have been part of all of Derek’s milestones, as well as the milestones of many of the wounded warriors. They were there when Derek first stood on his new prosthetics, took his first steps, was promoted to Specialist, received his Purple Heart, and finally left the hospital after a seven month stay. “It wouldn’t be as special without them,” he said at his promotion ceremony. During one visit with Archie and Amy, Amy rushed out of the room to get to the MATC, because a young man needed Archie by his side when he tried out his new legs. “He’s loved,” she said with a smile.

The three regulars have different personalities and temperaments, so there is a pup for everyone.

LauraLaura is alpha and an attention hog. If there is love to be given, she wants it. She is also extremely empathetic, and senses when she is needed. Her wise eyes and constant smile lull everyone into a sense of calm. She works a lot in Breast Care with the women receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. In a crowd of people, she can pick out the one person who needs her the most. She loves to balance her treats on her nose and then flip them into her mouth to the delight of everyone.

Archie13Archie is, as Amy said, a typical Marine. He is always alert and on guard. He loves children and lets them crawl all over him. “I like him, even if he is a Marine,” commented Derek, an Army Specialist. Archie’s most famous trick is his “high ten” where he jumps up and gives double high paws. “The thing I love the most about Archie is that he makes people smile, he makes me smile,” commented Amy.  “He is real to his core. You know when he is happy, when he is not, when he wants to be with you, and when he needs to take a nap.”

11018895_1057439567619423_5282421495161973558_nBobbie is just a sweetie. She snuggles on the bed, when invited, and gives her rump for a good scratching. She does have a weakness, though, and, shhhh, don’t tell anyone I revealed this: Her only weakness is treats. She loves her food, her favorite of which is celery and other veggies, but she does not discriminate, and she will sit up and take notice whenever there is food around. She works a lot on the TBI/psychiatric ward. Lisa stated, “I was told that she has a way of getting people to open up and talk.” Lisa adds, “It is an honor being on the other end of Bobbie’s leash. She provides the comfort, and I’m so proud being her partner.”

Ask anyone at Walter Reed Bethesda about them, and there are not many who have not met one, or all, of these special additions to the staff. “I love when they come in, and when Archie settles on my bed,” said one patient, who does not wish his name to be used. “I really miss my dog at home, and Archie helps me with that.”

The program at Walter Reed Bethesda is such a success that it is spreading to Quantico. Laura, Archie and Bobbie were invited to Quantico in December 2011 to make a presentation in the clinic. “They have such a great, therapeutic influence,” Amy said.

Lisa also says she is honored “to meet the wonderful patients and their families. They allow us into their lives, and I know my life is more meaningful because of them.”

When at Walter Reed Bethesda, to arrange a visit with one of the pups, contact Patricia Barry ( / 301-295-7895) or Amy O’Connor (Amy.R.O’ / 301-319-4447). You will be glad you did.



More Than Just a Dog

LauraMy heart is breaking over the sudden passing of the matriarch of the Walter Reed Facility Dog Program, VADM Laura Lee. 
This comes on the heels of the diagnoses of inoperable cancer in GySgt Archie, who retired from the program last year.Archie13
I cannot tell Derek‘s story without mentioning the three original facility dogs – Laura Lee, Bobbie, and Archie.
On August 8, 2011, Derek went septic. He had been in the ICU at Walter Reed in Bethesda, Maryland since July 29, 2011. Krystina and I were in shock as we walked through the lobby of Building 10. I looked over and saw two dogs – Laura and Bobbie. Laura must have sensed that I needed her, because she pulled her handler over and herded me into the seats. She leaned against me while I stroked her beautiful, golden fur.
A few days later, Archie trotted into the ICU for a meeting with us, because his Mom, Amy, needed to speak with me.
After that, we had visits from Laura, Bobbie, and Archie every couple of days. They gave comfort and love every time they visited.
They were there for most of Derek’s milestones.
The first time he stood on his new prosthetics.Archie21
The first time he walked.
 The day he was awarded his purple heart.
 The day he was promoted.

The day he finally wheeled out of the hospital as an outpatient.

The day he received his van from Help Our Military Heroes.
And when we lost Derek, they attended his memorial service.
Laura and Archie are more than “just a dog.” They have been part of a horrible, wonderful, traumatic, inspiring chapter in our lives.
Laura Christmas 2017
Archie01Laura was such a sweet, quiet soul who touched and enriched so many lives. Archie’s stoic strength helped so many through their own trials and tribulations.
Laura passed quietly in her sleep, and I know that Derek was waiting for her at the Rainbow Bridge.
Archie, I wish you happiness and an easy transition to the Rainbow Bridge, where I know Derek McConnell will be waiting with open arms and lots of bacon.

5 Years Later

1982346_673459969361866_1032275956_nFive years ago, March 18, 2013, I got up early on a Monday morning and headed into NYC for a job interview. At that time I did not yet know that not only would I be offered the job, but that I would not be able to accept the offer.

Derek2I got a message in the late morning from a man who has treated me like a little sister since the day he met me, Anson. He said, “Go home and stay there. For once in your life, do what you are told without asking why.”

I was at home when I got the message, so I said, “I’m home, so now I’m asking why.  What’s going on?”

He wouldn’t tell me. I told him that I had to leave to take the puppies to the vet. It was their first vet appointment. I told him that I would be home by 4:30 p.m.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.52.31 AM

While I was posting about the vet, friends at Walter Reed, who already knew what happened, were watching my Facebook and wondering when I would be notified.

When I got back from the vet, I called Anson. He told me to just stay home. He also asked me if I had spoken to Krystina. I told him that I had not, but that I had texted both Derek and Krystina, and neither one of them answered.  That was odd to me, and I had no idea why. He told me to keep calling Krystina. I tried. She didn’t answer.

At around 5 p.m., Tom called me. He was a friend of Derek’s and a cop in North Caldwell. He asked me if Derek was okay. I told him that he was, as far as I knew. He told me that the vice principal of the Jr High texted the Chief in North Caldwell that she was sorry to hear about Derek. That confused me. Could she mean the accident from July 23, 2011? Seemed a little out there.11080911_10206322913621614_7858929696618954598_n

So I tried Krystina, again. No answer.

I called Derek. Straight to voicemail.

I texted both of them. No response.

But then at around 5:30 p.m. Krystina called me and blew my world apart.

1908241_433311883438857_1404279879_nAt 7:30 that morning, she had tried to wake Derek for PT, and he was gone. The Army had their procedures for notifying the next of kin, so she was not allowed to call me. They allowed her to call her mother, who picked up her son from the Jr High (hence how the VP knew) and headed down to Bethesda, MD. Krystina finally got tired of waiting for the Army to notify me and called me herself.

I sat on the top of the stairs and screamed.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.52.16 AM

I called my sister, Yvette, and she got her stuff together and came to pick me up so that we could drive to Bethesda.

I then called Anson, who had been at Walter Reed and found out, but could not tell me himself or he would have gotten in trouble. He told me to stay home because the notification officer was on his way. I told him he could meet me on the Turnpike and kiss my ass because I was headed to Bethesda.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 11.53.54 AMThus started the worst journey of my life. Dealing with grief, the Army, planning a funeral, and remembering my toothless turd, it was a roller coaster few weeks.

1907470_10100194989513289_6033092849021981869_nIt was made worse by the fight it took to find out why. To find out what happened. To finally get the answers, but to not get satisfaction. I know what happened that day. It breaks my heart that no one will take responsibility for it.

It’s been a roller coaster five years. I cannot believe that it has been five years. It feels like only yesterday. It has not gotten easier. I’ve just learned to live with the pain.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.03.04 PM

Last night, I signed on Facebook while at a St. Patrick’s Day party, and one of Derek’s nurses had posted that she hates March 18th, and she tagged one of Derek’s corpsmen. I knew what she was talking about. I broke down in tears.


I signed on Facebook this morning and my feed was full of tributes to Derek. Cue more tears.

Screen Shot 2018-03-18 at 12.02.14 PM

It fills me with love and comfort when people remember Derek and let me know how he touched their lives.

I’ll be out to dinner tonight with family and friends, raising a toast to Derek. Please join us at Houlihans on Route 46 in Parsippany, NJ at 6 if you are in the area, or raise a glass to him wherever you are. 29339524_10160112551410364_2555373578249830400_o




Oh, and please wear purple. That was Derek’s favorite color!

Just Because

What’s your “Just because. . .”

Just because I’m alone, doesn’t mean I am lonely.

Just because I’m single, doesn’t mean I want you to set me up.

Just because I’m blonde, doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Just because I’m meek, doesn’t mean I’m weak.

Just because I’m quiet, doesn’t mean I have nothing to say.

Just because I’m offended, doesn’t mean I don’t support your right to do it anyway.

Just because I’m Irish, doesn’t mean I’m a drunk.

Just because I’m Mexican, doesn’t mean I’m here illegally.

Just because I’m German, doesn’t mean I’m a Nazi.

Just because I’m Italian and from Jersey, doesn’t mean I’m a mobster.

Just because I’m Asian, doesn’t mean I have a small penis.

Just because I’m black, doesn’t mean I have a big penis.

Just because I’m Middle Eastern, doesn’t mean I hate America.

Just because I’m an immigrant, doesn’t mean I don’t work hard.

Just because I’m a librarian, doesn’t mean I’m a prude.

Just because I’m a prude, doesn’t mean I won’t rock your world.

Just because I’m a politician, doesn’t mean I’m corrupt.

Just because I’m a lawyer, doesn’t mean I’m a liar.

Just because I’m a cop, doesn’t mean I’m abusive or a racist.

Just because I’m pro life, doesn’t mean I won’t support your right to choose.

Just because I’m on welfare, doesn’t mean I’m lazy.

Just because I’m crying, doesn’t mean I’m sad.

Just because I’m not exactly like you, doesn’t mean I’m bad.

Just because I don’t agree with you, doesn’t mean I’m wrong.

Just because I’m white, doesn’t mean I’m privileged.

Just because I’m a teenager, doesn’t mean I’m rude or lazy.

Just because I’m in a bad mood, doesn’t mean it’s because of you.

Just because my hands are shaking, doesn’t mean I’m angry.

Just because I’m not married, doesn’t mean I’m a crazy cat lady.

Just because I’m a millennial, doesn’t mean I live with my parents.

Just because I’m a boy, doesn’t mean I’m good at sports.

Just because I’m a girl, doesn’t mean I’m bad at sports.

Just because I snapped at you, doesn’t mean it has anything to do with you.

Just because I grew up in the projects, doesn’t mean I’m worthless.

Just because I’m a single Mom, doesn’t mean I’m easy.

Just because I didn’t go to college, doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Just because I voted for Trump, doesn’t mean I’m racist.

Just because I voted for Clinton, doesn’t mean I’m a criminal.

Just because I’m a woman and the boss, doesn’t mean I’m a bitch.

Just because I’m poor, doesn’t mean I’m not worthy.

Just because I have PTSD, doesn’t mean I’m dangerous.

Just because I’m gay, doesn’t mean I am a pedophile.

Just because I dress sexy, doesn’t mean I’m easy.

Just because I wear a short skirt, doesn’t mean I’m asking for it.

Just because I like guns, doesn’t mean I’m a murderer.

Just because I’m Christian, doesn’t mean I’m homophobic.

Just because I’m Muslim, doesn’t mean I’m a terrorist.

Just because I’m black, doesn’t mean I’m a thug.

Just because I’m a man, doesn’t mean I am a rapist.

Just because I’m white, doesn’t mean I’m a racist.



Stop making assumptions.

Stop believing in stereotypes.

Take time to listen.

Take time to learn.

Take time to love.

Open Letter to Phil Murphy and Lou Greenwald

Dear Mr. Murphy and Mr. Greenwald:

I am quite dismayed that the media is using Sgt La David Johnson’s death as a political pawn to discredit the President. This hero was protecting our way of life and trying to stamp out evil in this world, but let’s use his name all over the place just to discredit President Trump.

I am also disgusted by your attempt to politicize this tragedy. You will never have my vote or my support as a result.  You are taking something that should be sacred and making a mockery of it.

Now I am addressing the following email that was sent to Gold Star families in New Jersey on your behalf:

I would like to formally invite you to join Gold Star father Khizr Khan, Senator Beach, Assemblywoman Lampitt, and myself in support of the Phil Murphy for Governor campaign and the entire democratic slate this Thursday, October 26th, at 11 A.M. at the Collingswood Community Center.

As you may remember, Khizr Khan and his wife were publically ridiculed by President Trump after their speech at the 2016 Democratic National Convention. The Khans lost their son, Army Captain Humayun Khan, in 2004 during the Iraq War.

Since the DNC, Mr. Khan has been a voice for families of fallen soldiers, most recently standing up to Donald Trump’s reprehensible comments to a mother who lost her son in battle.

He is joining us to support candidates that promote fair treatment of veterans who have fought for and served our country. I have attached the flyer below, and I would be honored to see you there. To R.S.V.P., please contact.


Thank you,


Lou Greenwald

Assembly Majority Leader


Murphy Event

First of all, Mr. Khan is not a voice for me. I cannot stand his political posturing and the way he is using his son’s death. It’s despicable. As for President Trump’s comments about Khan, what about Hillary calling Patricia Smith a liar?  You cannot point a finger at one without also acknowledging the other. Both candidates said things that they should not have said about Gold Star family members. You lose all credibility when you attack one and ignore the other.

We all know Trump shoots from the hip and doesn’t check his words. Unlike Obama who had everything scripted and on a teleprompter, Trump is himself. He has no filter. He doesn’t always think before he speaks. That’s what I like about him, but also what I don’t. He really needs to learn a bit more diplomacy, but I still will not accept that, as is being reported by the media, his only words to a grief stricken widow were – he knew what he signed up for. [Side note: After Derek was injured, someone told me, “What did you expect when he joined the military?” And another one said to me, “Why did you let him join?”]

I am so sick of all of these pathetic attempts to discredit President Trump. What does any of this have to do with whether or not you would be a good governor?

President Trump did not disparage or attack Johnson’s widow. He criticized the pathetic congresswoman who lied about the call and made a mockery out of the process.  Four calls were made, but only one was criticized as inappropriate? That says more about the recipient rather than the caller.

As a Gold Star Mom, what President Trump said to Widow Johnson doesn’t offend me. If someone said that to me when my son died, I would have thanked them. Honestly, if someone had simply said to me that Derek knew what he signed up for, I would have agreed with him. Derek knew. Someone dear to me and to Derek said to him before he deployed, “But, Derek, you could die!” His response was, “I know!”

Anyone who raises his/her hand and is sworn in to the military knows the worst that can happen. Their families also know the worst that can happen. We sit at home just waiting, knowing that that call or knock on the door could come at any time.

What President Trump said to LaDavid’s wife, and what he has said since does not offend me, but that congresswoman offends every sense of decency. She owes LaDavid’s widow and children, every Gold Star Family Member, as well as the entire country an apology, and now, so do you. How dare you capitalize on this tragedy!

In some interviews the Congresswoman who reported the initial comment admitted that she didn’t hear the entire conversation, so she doesn’t know whether or not he followed it up with anything else. In other interviews, she says she heard the entire conversation. Which is it? She has already contradicted herself.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders said there was no recording, but that other White House officials were in the room when Trump called the widow, including White House Chief of Staff John Kelly who gave a press statement that should have cleared up the entire mess. Unfortunately, you closed minded liberals won’t hear anything that doesn’t fit with your limited world view.

Ms. Sanders statement was that “multiple people in the room believe that the President was completely respectful (and) very sympathetic.”

When my son died, I did not get a letter from Obama, I got a mass produced Certificate. When my friend’s son died, she got a personalized, hand written letter from President George W. Bush. When my friend’s son was injured, she received a personalized, hand written letter from President George W. Bush. I didn’t get a letter from Obama when Derek was injured. When her son later died, she got a mass produced Certificate from Obama, and they spelled her son’s name wrong. See the difference?

I and many others in the Gold Star Community are disgusted by your pathetic attempt to discredit our President off of our tragedies.  I will remember this when I go to the polls on Election Day.


Siobhan M. Fuller-McConnell

Gold Star Mother of Sgt Derek McConnell

P.S. If I could make it down to Collingswood tomorrow, I would voice my disgust in person.

ABC, Disney, ESPN v. Optimum

While watching Designated Survivor last night, I saw scroll across the bottom on my screen a notice to call Optimum and demand that ABC not be dropped from the lineup. (And I had previously seen a notice not to allow them to lose Disney.) That caused me to do a little research as to why these stations are threatening to pull out of the Optimum line up. I mean, why would I only believe ABC?

I found this article, among many others.

The bottom line is that they want more money.  They want to force customers to pay for ESPN even if (like me) they don’t want it or need it or watch it. Given how the NFL has been throwing a collective temper tantrum, I really don’t care if football is available in my house.

These companies make billions.  Yes, that’s right.  Billions of dollars off the backs of hard working Americans.  Now they want us to pay more for basic TV coverage, even if we only want the barebones.  They want to force us to have channels we don’t want and many of us cannot afford.

To make matters worse, do you know of any package that allows you to only have less than all of the major TV networks (i.e. ABC, NBC, CBS, FOX, etc.)?  I don’t.  Can I have Optimum only provide me with CBS and NBC if that is what I want?  No.  I will be forced to pay the higher rates for channels I don’t want, cannot afford, and will never watch.

This is not acceptable.  We, as a collective group, need to stand up to these greedy companies.

And this is on the heels of some unpatriotic and nasty statements from the ABC “stars,” and unpatriotic decisions by ABC.

So, good-bye.  I don’t want or need you in my life.  While I love Designated Survivor and a few of your other programs, and while Disney Channel has been my go to for mindless, easy TV (except Bizaardvark, because that is just too stupid to stomach), I can live without them.  I will not be extorted to pay an astronomical fee just to pad your pockets.

Optimum, if my rates go up because you gave in to the extortion, I WILL find other service. Stand strong. Don’t let them manipulate you.


Good-day, Sirs.

Bye, Felicia