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.
Laura 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.
Archie 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.”
Bobbie 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 (firstname.lastname@example.org / 301-295-7895) or Amy O’Connor (Amy.R.O’Connor@health.mil / 301-319-4447). You will be glad you did.
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:
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.
We have all heard and probably said, “Happy Memorial Day!” But is that really appropriate? Should we be saying “Happy” Memorial Day? Is it really a “happy” day? Do we go to funerals or memorial services for loved ones and tell people to have a happy day?
It used to bother me. A lot. But it no longer does.
When someone says, “Happy Memorial Day” to me now, I smile. I am thankful to all of those who gave all, who gave their very lives so that the American public can have a “happy” Memorial Day. So that they can go to barbecues, head down the shore, take a road trip, or whatever else makes them happy.
I am thankful that so many Americans do not have to live with the horrors and difficulties that other countries experience. Bombings in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, England, France. Yes, we have our own share of problems, but not like around the world. I am glad that I live in a country protected by these brave souls so that John Q Public can continue to live in ignorance.
Memorial Day has always had special meaning in my household. In 1942, my paternal grandfather lost two of his brothers. Albert Fuller was a Merchant Marine who died on a torpedoed tanker, and Frank Fuller was a Lt. Commander in the US Navy who perished on a tanker in the South Pacific. My paternal grandmother lost her brother, John Keane, in 1945 in Germany.
In addition to several uncles, cousins, and in-laws who served, my great-great-grandfather, Michael Keane, was a prisoner of war in the First World War where he served with the Royal Navy. My father, John Fuller, was in the Army in the early 1960’s. My son, Michael, served four years with the US Navy on the USS Vella Gulf out of Norfolk, Virginia.
While my family’s history led to us having a deeper appreciation for Memorial Day, it wasn’t until 2013 that it really hit home. In 2011, only six short years ago, I “celebrated” Memorial Day with two sons in the Armed Forces. Michael was finishing his tour of duty in Norfolk, Virginia, but Derek had deployed to Afghanistan in March 2011 with the 10th Mountain Division out of Fort Drum, New York where Derek exemplified the 10th Mountain’s Motto: “Climb to Glory”.
On July 23, 2011, I received a phone call from Fort Drum advising me that Derek had been injured while on patrol. While attempting to secure a landing zone for a medevac helicopter for an injured lieutenant, Derek encountered not one, but two IEDs. The first one knocked him down, but he sustained no further injury. When given the opportunity to stand down, he laughed and carried on. Two steps later, he wasn’t so lucky.
Derek suffered amputations to both legs, the left leg from the hip and the right leg high above the knee. He also had a degloving injury to his right arm, leaving the hand not able to function, several fractures, and blast wounds, and he was riddled with infections due to the dirty soil entering his blood stream. We almost lost him several times to sepsis and organ failure. Derek spent 59 days in the ICU and 228 days (seven full months) as an inpatient at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He had 45 surgeries and procedures, and he was seen by 34 different medical teams and services. He fought through it all.
Derek fought long and hard to regain his health, strength and stamina, but he never lost his sense of humor. We spent many days sitting in his hospital room, when he was too sick to get out of bed, just laughing at his antics. We were the place nurses and doctors came to hang out and get their daily dose of “Derekisms.”
In high school Derek was the student who showed up to class with a smile and a whole lot of charm. That’s it. No homework. No notebook. Nothing but his winning personality. He charmed his teachers into passing him. He stood up for the little guy. He fought against injustice. He was as fierce in battle as he was gentle in friendship and a great ally. He so loved his family that he had a tattoo of a four-leaf clover on his arm with the names of each of his four siblings. His favorite sayings were “No Luck, Only Sacrifice,” and “Go Big, or Go Home.” He had “No Luck, Only Sacrifice” tattooed on his arm, and many of us have gotten the same tattoo in his honor. He meant that you do not get anywhere in life by relying on luck; you work hard and sacrifice for what is important. That’s who Derek was.
He was also a hot mess. When I told him that, his response to me was, “Well, Mom, at least I’m hot.” His sense of humor is something none of us will quick forget.
Derek fought hard, and never gave up. He learned to walk again on high tech prosthetics, learned to be independent, and proposed to the girl of his dreams, Krystina Dressler, his high school sweetheart. They were to be married in January 2014. Derek aspired to be a writer, and he started his own novel. He was completing the med board process so that he could be medically retired from the Army, and he was looking forward to coming home in the summer of 2013, and to picking up his service dog, a German Shephard with an angel’s name, Gabriel. My sister, Yvette Maglio, renovated her house so that Derek would be able to move home. We were all ready and excited about the future. Derek knew his limitations, but he was ready to meet them head on.
His dreams and goals were not to be realized. On March 18, 2013, almost two years to the date he deployed to Afghanistan, he climbed to eternal glory. Sgt Derek McConnell, 23 years old like so many other Veterans; made the ultimate sacrifice and wrote a blank check payable to The United States of America, for an unknown amount, but “up to, and including, his life…”
But Derek is only one of our brave men and women who answered the call to serve our country. He is but one. I am but one Gold Star Mother honoring and remembering our military heroes on this Memorial Day.
Since the start of the War on Terror, less than 14 years ago, we have lost around 7,000 of our brave, young men and women, and that is not including the 22 each day who lose their battle with PTSD.
Today, we pause to honor all of those lost in military conflict since the start of our great nation, which is more than 1.3 million. Their sacrifice and the sacrifice of their families can never be forgotten.
Memorial Day is about so much more than barbecues, the beach, and a long weekend. Memorial Day is a day of reflection and remembrance. It is a day to remember all of our Fallen Heroes from all of the wars. It is a day to think about the families that will forever grieve for their lost loved one. It is a day to be thankful to those who have served and made the ultimate sacrifice. They fought and died to win the freedom and democracy that we Americans cherish so dearly.
All gave some, but some gave all.
Along with my Gold Star Sisters and Brothers, I will bear the burden for everyone in this great Nation to have a “happy” Memorial Day.
So go on and have a happy Memorial Day. Smile when someone says, “Happy Memorial Day.” Then take a few minutes to reflect on all of those who gave all so that you and I could have a Happy Memorial Day.
Pledge to go silent for these brave men and women at 3:00 p.m. on Memorial Day. Never forget their sacrifice so that you may live free.