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Healing soldiers, one dog at a time

Even though he has retired from military service, Irwin Stovroff continues to act heroically, helping injured vets recover by raising millions to sponsor guide dog training. NBC's Special Correspondent Chelsea Clinton reports.

 

By Mary Murray
NBC News
Boca Raton, Fla.

Irwin Stovroff is a true American hero – not only for what he did 70 years ago, but for what he accomplishes today.

During World War II, the 20-year-old airman was on his 35th bombing mission when the enemy shot down his B-24 Liberator over German-occupied France.

In Stovroff's home a photo hanging on the wall shows the exact moment his plane nosedived to the ground, billowing smoke. In the picture, taken by an airman flying in another bomber, tiny white dots depict the 10 crewmen who parachuted to the ground.

He remembers being scared and "cursing Hitler all the way down."

Landing right behind enemy lines, Stovroff and his crew were immediately captured by German forces. "This was one time I really did not think I was going to make it," he said.

He believes quick thinking helped save him. Stovroff said he threw away the dog tags that identified him as Jewish, and spent the next year in a Nazi POW camp before being freed by Russian forces. Upon returning to the U.S., Stovroff earned the Air Medal, the Purple Heart, and eventually, the Distinguished Flying Cross.

Knowing first-hand the horrors of war, the 89-year-old is now on a new mission -- helping wounded soldiers.

After learning that the federal government has no program to match injured soldiers with service dogs, Stovroff started a charity in 2007 called Vets Helping Heroes. Since then, he’s raised $3 million to supply vets with seeing-eye and therapy dogs.  

"I really recognize what a dog can mean, what a dog can do for somebody," he told NBC’s “Nightly News.” "The dog is a true lifesaver."

The highly trained service dog, Stovroff said, can give the wounded warrior "mobility, independence and a companionship that he can't get from any other way."

Lt. Col. Kathy Champion served with distinction for 27 years and commanded a special combat unit in Iraq. After, returning home, she went blind from a mysterious virus she contracted in Iraq that attacked her spinal cord. At first, Champion shut herself off from family and friends.

Joseph Jones, Jr., a Vietnam War veteran, spends some quality time with guide dog Bruce, at the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center in Florida.

"I became a hermit in my own house," she said. "I quit school. I quit my job. I quit being social. I didn't want to talk to anybody. I stopped answering phone calls from my son and daughter. I didn't tell anybody what was wrong. I didn't want anyone to know I wasn't the soldier I had been."

Concerned friends forced her out of her shell and she applied for a service dog from Southeastern Guide Dogs, one of the country's leading training facilities.  

Stovroff’s charity donated thousands of dollars to sponsor the dog, and Champion spent 26 days living and training with "Angel" at the facility's Florida campus. She described it as a "life-changing" event.

These cute puppies are in training and will eventually become service dogs for disabled veterans. NBC's Chelsea Clinton has the story on NBC "Nightly News with Brian Williams."

"She has granted me back the life that I felt was taken from me," the army veteran said about her yellow Labrador retriever.

Last year, Champion and Angel hiked the Grand Canyon. "She has taught me to trust," Champion said.

Stovroff also raised the funds to give retired Master Sgt. Mark Gwathmey a lifeline named "Larry."

After three tours of combat duty in Iraq, Gwathmey was constantly exposed to mortar fire and Improvised Explosive Devices that left the soldier with serious medical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, a brain injury and severe seizures.  Some days the seizures lasted up to eight hours.

"There were times he couldn't walk, couldn't talk. He didn't know who he was, who I was," his wife, Carolyn Gwathmey, recalled.

Life, she said, was so "dark and miserable" she feared her husband would take his own life. "As much love and support his family gave him, it wasn't enough," she said.

Larry not only gave her husband back his life, she said, but also saved his life.

"Larry gave him whatever humans couldn't," Carolyn said.

It’s much more than companionship. Larry can sense when Gwathmey will have a seizure, even hours before it happens, and the dog alerts the family and stands guard over Gwathmey, Carolyn said. 

"If Mark tries to stand up, Larry gently forces him back on to the bed," she said.

This degree of training, however, does not come cheap. Costs to train a Southeastern Guide Dog can run as high as $70,000.

Dr. Michael Silverman from the West Palm Beach VA Medical Center argues that the value of a service dogs is priceless. He's speaking in particular about one loveable black lab named Bruce who roams the hospital halls and visits with World War II and Vietnam War veterans.

Bruce started out in the strenuous program at Southeastern but, like 50 percent of the dogs initially chosen to train as guide dogs, he didn't make the grade.

Even so, Bruce possesses a very special quality, so Stovroff sponsored him for another service career: Bruce is a hugger, all 62 pounds of him. He likes to lay his head on a patient's bed or on the patient's legs if the person is in a wheelchair. Bruce is also trained to give a proper hug, gently placing his paws on a patient's shoulders. At the moment, he's also learning how to give his paw for a more traditional handshake.

"Bruce has a calming effect with his unconditional, non-judgmental love. Patients become less agitated when Bruce is around. They look forward to his visits. He adds to the spirit of the day.  He especially helps our vets who are a little afraid to interact with other people," Dr. Silverman said.

The use of therapy dogs to help soldiers heal both the visible and invisible wounds of war is not a new technique, he added. "The American Red Cross, after World War II, used pets in convalescent homes, to help our troops.  So, this relationship goes back many, many years and it's a win-win."

Stovroff says every returning soldier in need of a service dog should be provided with one. And while he lobbies for federal funding for canine therapy, he's continuing to make a difference in the lives of more than 80 newly-wounded soldiers from Iraq and Afghanistan. He calls his program "The Gift of Life."

"America needs to do more for the troops," Stovroff said. "It's our turn to fight for them."