What a difference a dog can make.
“I was just ready to give up completely. I was done,” U.S. Marine Corps veteran Craig Hodgkins said.
The Mt. Lebanon resident had gone through multiple surgeries, gained weight, become reclusive, alienated his family. As a result, he seriously contemplated following the path of the estimated 22 veterans who take their lives each day in the United States.
Then he met Foxy, his constant companion provided to him at no charge by Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc.
“Since I’ve had Foxy, I’ve lost 46 pounds from going out and doing walks with her,” he said, adding he now fits into his master sergeant’s uniform for the first time in a decade.
He wore the uniform as one of the keynote speakers at Collier Township’s first-ever Salute to Veterans Brunch, held Wednesday at the township community center. Joining him was Bill Jeffcoat, president of Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans, a Pittsburgh-area volunteer group that supports Florida-based Guardian Angels.
The role is a natural fit for Jeffcoat, who served in the Marine Corps as a dog handler during the Vietnam War.
“I walk this earth because of a dog,” he said, specifically one named Fraulein.
She and others like her were so effective as trackers and scouts that they were subject to bounties by the North Vietnamese Army and Viet Cong.
“If you were to kill a war dog and cut its tattooed ear off, it was $20,000,” Jeffcoat said. “If you killed a handler, took a unit patch or a rank insignia, it was $10,000.”
Apparently, the U.S. military put no such value on the dogs, as fewer than 200 out of the 4,000 deployed returned home. Jeffcoat’s was not one of them.
“The day before I left Vietnam, one of the other handlers came up to me and said that the vet wanted to see Fraulein,” he recalled. “So I went down to the kennel, got Fraulein, went over to see the vet. Walked inside, and they told me that they were going to put her down.
“They gave me five minutes alone with her, came in and euthanized her. She died in my arms.”
Decades later, he met Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans founders Tony Accamando and George D’Angelo, who noticed Jeffcoat’s Vietnam Dog Handlers Association shirt and asked if he would like to join their group.
“It was an easy decision,” he said. “Once a dog man, you’re always a dog man.”
Jeffcoat said Guardian Angel dogs are “trained to mitigate the visible and invisible disabilities that our veterans are facing: post-traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, seizure disorders, insulin dependence, mobility issues and/or a combination.”
“The cost of the dog: $25,000,” he added. “Two years to train, 1,500 hours, and they’re given to the veteran at no cost.”
Being given Foxy not only provided Hodgkins with a new lease on life, but the dog actually has saved his life. Her keen senses allow for detection of health problems, and once, when she ascertained he was suffering from internal bleeding, he was rushed to St. Clair Hospital for immediately needed treatment.
On another occasion, he had taken medication to help him sleep.
“I was pretty much out cold, and all of a sudden I awoke to what I thought was a dog giving me CPR on my chest,” he recalled.
Then he heard fire alarms and, realizing it was no drill, he and Foxy exited their apartment building safely.
“The fire did not end up affecting my apartment,” Hodgkins said. “But in my eyes, it could have, because we all know how smoke can take you out in a heartbeat.”
To help provide more veterans with canine companions, Guardian Angels is in the process of building a new campus on 102 acres off Beagle Club Road in Robinson Township, Washington County.
“The purpose of that project is to double the capacity of providing medical service dogs,” said Marine Corps veteran Jack Wagner, who also attended the Salute to Veterans Brunch. “Now, approximately 50 to 60 dogs can be tied in with veterans on an annual basis with the one campus in Florida.”
Wagner, a former state auditor general and Senator, is on Guardian Angels’ development team for the Pennsylvania region.
“On this campus there will be, at any given time, 80 dogs being trained,” he said about the Washington County facility. “We hope to break ground in 2022, this spring. It would be partially open toward the end of 2023 and fully open in 2024.”
Plans call for the campus to have 10 buildings, including one as a temporary residence for veterans as they go through two weeks of training with their dogs.
“It’s really a very in-depth process and maybe one of the most in-depth processes for any service-dog training in our country,” Wagner said.
The project has drawn significant support financially and also from a participation standpoint.
“I have a list already,” Wagner reported. “I have a file of people who said, when that campus is up and running, we want to volunteer to be part of this entire process.”