CAROLINE COUNTY, Va. — Canine class is in. The training at this school goes well beyond sit, stay and shake.
Labs and golden retrievers take center stage at this facility in Ruther Glen.
Clients like David Wright spend hours, days, weeks and months bonding and perfecting commands.
“He is always happy to see me,” said David. “There was a bond between me and Scout that seemed unbreakable.”
David and Scout have been joined at the hip since March of 2021.
“I’m not a morning person, but he seems to put a smile on my face every morning,” said David. “He’s my boy. He’s a good boy.”
The four-year-old is a rescue dog in entirely different sense.
“He can feel when I get nervous and depressed, he’ll come up and nudge my leg or lay his head on my lap,” described David.
The lovable lab pulled this veteran out of the depths of despair.
“It took me several years. Several years. I was in a very dark place,” said David.
During his deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, David and his team refueled convoys of military vehicles.
“It was tough. Because it seemed like we were the main target for any bombing or anything like that,” he explained.
One forgettable day in May of 2011, a suicide bomber attacked David’s base.
“This Afghani came in and detonated at the gate,” said David. “I was far enough away not to get killed, but close enough to get knocked on my tail and get knocked out.”
The man from Prince George survived, but suffered internal injuries doctors couldn’t see.
“From that point on it was tough for me to think, do things. Basically PTSD,” said David. “I didn’t want anything to do with my friends or family or my job.”
At home, the 47-year-old’s life crumbled. The married father wanted to end it all.
“I turned to alcoholism,” said David. “I even made a plan to kill myself.”
But his life turned a corner. Through the V.A., David found Paws for Purple Hearts.
“There was a time where you wouldn’t have caught me dead in a crowd,” said David.
The nonprofit trains service dogs for struggling veterans.
“Scout sat with me. He laid his head on my lap the entire time. He laid at my feet,” said David. “I really didn’t want to leave.”
Pups learn to help warriors with daily tasks.
The founder of Virginia’s chapter of Paws for Purple Hearts, Heather Martin, said dogs sense when their veteran may be suffering in silence.
“But you know that your dog is just this nice calming presence next to you and you can look at your dog and just go ‘Your fine. OK. I guess I’m fine too,’” said Heather.
Weekly therapy sessions are also provided.
Scott Justus, a Marine for 30 years, is training service dogs who will ultimately be paired with fellow veterans.
Scott said these dogs are nothing short of life savers.
“They lighten your day if you’re the one that is working with them,” said Scott. “They learn from us but we definitely learn from them. No doubt. No doubt.”
It takes roughly two-and-a-half years to train a service dog. At the Ruther Glen location, about 30 dogs have come through since it opened in 2015.
The nonprofit’s Danielle Stockbridge sees a transformation with the veterans take place daily.
“It is good to know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. They come in and the dogs really bring the best out of them and guide them back to a better place,” said Danielle.
“I didn’t worry about being alone all the time. I knew he had my back,” said David.
For David, Scout is more than just a constant companion. He is a miracle worker.
“I feel like I can do things more independently now. He helps me with my mobility. He picks things up for me,” said David. “He is a blessing. He is a blessing.”
This veteran shudders to think where he would be without his battle buddy. David Wright, a soldier who found salvation at the end of a leash.
“My advice is to never give up,” said David. “Always know there is somebody out there that has been through it just like you,” says David. “He just gives me a lot of love. A lot of love.”
If you would like to find out more about the Paws for Purple Hearts program, click here.