Like many military service members, Army Veterinarian Technician Lisa Philips struggled to pay expensive medical bills for her four-legged family member, nine-year old Belgian Malinois Gizmo. To help pay for Gizmo’s medical care, she had to take a second job at a civilian veterinarian clinic that gave her an employee discount.
But Gizmo was not just any dog; he was a retired military working canine that needed special medical care. Unfortunately though, once these dogs fulfill their faithful service, they are classified as “excess equipment” and the Defense Department does not pay for medical treatment nor is there a standardized process for people to donate money for transport back to the United States.
There are about 3,000 dogs proudly serving in the U.S. Armed Forces, with about 300-350 retiring each year. Six-hundred canine heroes deploy to multiple war zones, including Afghanistan, Africa and Kuwait. But when their time is up they are considered “surplus” and the potential adoptee must shoulder huge transportation bills in addition to lifetime medical care. This burden dramatically decreases the pool of applicants that would otherwise be interested in these dogs. Army Maj. Kevin Hanrahan has heard multiple stories of troops unable to adopt their military working dog simply because they couldn’t afford the veterinarian care.
So Lisa decided to do something about it. After she left the Army, she researched the issue and wrote an essay on the policy for her college English class. Her professor was so impressed with her writing that she advised her to send it to Congress. Through Lisa’s advocacy efforts in the military working dog community, she was connected to Rachel Lee, a Gold Star Mom to Cpl. Dustin Lee, a soldier killed in action. Rachel adopted her son’s working dog and connected Lisa to Congressman Walter Jones (R-NC). Jones took an interest in her cause and after reviewing her information on a proposed solution, he agreed to sponsor a bill.
The bill is now known as H.R. 4103, The Canine Members of the Armed Forces Act. It has a sister bill in the Senate introduced by Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) known as S.2134. So moved by her cause, I e-mailed three of my federal legislators and two responded letting me know they signed on. Sometimes all it takes is a concerned letter from a constituent.
The bill is included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. The bill costs no taxpayer dollars, sets up a charitable foundation to assist with transportation costs and allows people to donate frequent flier miles to pay for the working dog’s transport. And through the bill, the Secretary of Defense can create a special recognition for military working dogs killed in action or other exceptional meritorious service. Many hope to see it pass in the fall, but more co-sponsors are needed.
Today, The United States War Dog Association, Retired Military Working Dog Assistance Organization and Military Working Dog Adoptions are providing support for our canine heroes, handlers and potential adoptees as well as working tirelessly to advocate for this bill.
Lisa’s story is so amazing because it shows that no matter what your status is in life, you can make a difference. You don’t have to be the CEO of a major cooperation or be rich. You just have to have the motivation to succeed and preserve in the face of adversity. I had the chance to ask Lisa what advice she would give to others interested in perusing a cause. Here was what she said:
1) Follow what is in your heart. If you are open and honest about your goals, dreams, and communications with others, it will shine through in all you do, and people will gravitate towards you and want to help you.
2) Keep positive people in your circle. There will be people out there that will tell you that you can’t do it, and try to bring you down with negativity. Stay clear of them.
3) Ask questions to supporters. It helps to raise awareness for your mission.
4) Educate your community on your mission. If there are summer camps, parades, city events, and other venues, ask to be involved with them.
5) The number one thing to do is network. Create a Twitter account for what you are doing. Create a fan page on Facebook and Tweet and Facebook every day. Don’t be afraid to reach out and talk to strangers (start with folks who have the same interest, more influence in numbers). That one simple step of reaching out to a stranger is what really gave my mission the kick-start it needed.
To support Lisa and her mission helping military working dogs, please visit her website.
Theresa Donnelly is an active-duty Navy Lieutenant with 16 years of military service, having done 10 years enlisted with multiple overseas deployments. She is the owner of Hawaii Military Pets, an online pet resource for military families living in Hawaii. The blog and Facebook page provide information on moving with pets in the military, boarding information, pet policies in state and federal governments, and overall ways to celebrate the human-animal bond. She routinely partners with local and national animal nonprofits that place special emphasis on military and their companion animals, such as Dogs on Deployment and Pets for Patriots. Follow her on Twitter @tdonnelly76.