Best Defense

Rebecca’s War Dog of the Week: Veteran blinded by IED to take guide dog to 2016 Games in Rio

By Rebecca Frankel Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent "War Dogs" as a canine distinction is a wide-encompassing label, extending beyond just combat-trained dogs. This is in part because the ripple effects of war are so far reaching. In my mind — as well as here in this feature — "war dogs" includes combat theater strays ...

FoxCT
FoxCT

By Rebecca Frankel

Best Defense Chief Canine Correspondent

"War Dogs" as a canine distinction is a wide-encompassing label, extending beyond just combat-trained dogs. This is in part because the ripple effects of war are so far reaching. In my mind — as well as here in this feature — "war dogs" includes combat theater strays as well as the therapy and service dogs who assist veterans acclimating to life after war. Which is why the news that former Navy lieutenant and Paralympian medalist Brad Snyder would be getting a guide dog is not only exciting, but very relevant to the war-dog world of today.

Snyder, now 29, lost both his eyes in an IED explosion during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2011. NBC reports that Snyder was attempting to help "two Afghan soldiers wounded in an initial IED blast" when he "tripped a second hidden bomb in a farm-field irrigation ditch. His eyes were irreparably damaged by the detonation and later were removed by a surgeon."

Despite such an altering injury, within a year’s time Snyder would win two gold and one silver medals at the London Paralympic Games in 2012, where he also broke the world record for the 100-meter free. The story of his courageous and lightning-quick recovery became an inspirational narrative during the games. (Just watch this interview — Snyder’s resilience and eloquence is remarkable.)

Snyder will be competing again in 2016 and his plan is to take his new canine partner with him to Rio for the games. "Having a dog will allow me to walk to and from swim practice, get to and from the gym, and also be able to travel to swim meets across the country," Snyder told reporters.

Snyder was in Bloomfield, CT yesterday, meeting with staffers of Fidelco Guide Dog Foundation and their dogs. Part of the reason for the gathering was so Snyder could meet a handful of trained dogs for service-dog matchmaking. (In Fox’s news coverage seen here, Snyder was cozying up to two dogs: Gizzy and Houston. Houston has a stronger, more determined demeanor, while Snyder said he noticed Gizzy was more "delicate.") As the Fidelco CEO Eliot Russman explains, the process is extensive. "We look at pace of the client, living situation, temperament of the dog, and a number of factors to create the best possible partnership…" There’s even a "three-week training process in the client’s home."

Dogs actually have a long history of assisting wounded veterans, especially men blinded during battle. During WWI and in its aftermath, France would often assign its own military dogs (who, for whatever reason, were no longer able to serve on the front lines) to soldiers blinded by gas. These dogs were trained to bring these men to their favored destinations after they’d returned home from the front. When hospitals were being inundated with wounded soldiers, Dr. Gerhard Stalling of Germany, after watching his own dog show "signs, from the way the dog was behaving, that it was looking after the blind patient," opened the first-ever guide dog school in 1916.   

The first-ever officially trained "seeing-eye dog" didn’t come to the United States until 1928. Buddy was a German Shepherd trained in Vevey, Switzerland and brought over by a young man named Morris Frank. The pair was met with great skepticism; upon their arrival in New York, crowds gathered to watch the spectacle of a blind man being led by a dog — one reporter actually taunted Morris as he and Buddy took their first steps into Manhattan’s busy streets. It was because of Buddy that Morris, though not a veteran himself, would later become instrumental in ensuring that soldiers returning from WWII in need of guide dogs would have them.   

Whichever candidate he chooses — whether it’s Gizzy or Houston — Brad Snyder is looking forward to the changes a guide dog will bring to his life and to share his experience with other veterans who may be in a similar position. "As the country downsizes our military efforts overseas, we’re dynamically changing, and I want to help smooth the transition of those who are hanging up their uniforms," he said. Anytime we can show a successful transition, like the one I’m making, that’s encouraging."

Rebecca Frankel is away from her FP desk, working on a book about dogs and war.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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