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Service and Sacrifice: A 'second' service dog

Two wounded veterans who are grieving the loss of their first service dogs are forging a new bond with their second service dog.

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Every day, two wounded warriors are building a deeper connection to new service dogs they were paired with through the East Tennessee-based charity, Smoky Mountain Service Dogs.

“Once these veterans and their dogs get their mojo going, it's just magic. It's just magic,” said Mike Kitchens, the founder of a nonprofit he and his wife started almost a dozen years ago in their home. “We've been very blessed to be able to serve 57 or 58 (veterans) at this point …and the future is bright.” 

He also said that on average, they will match highly trained mobility dogs with upwards of eight veterans every year. To train each dog as a puppy and prepare them for placement with a veteran takes close to two years at a cost of around $25,000.

“She didn't just help me, she helped my wife. She would do things for my kids. She was a true companion,” said Billy Marshall, an Air Force veteran, about his first service dog Lucy.

The double-amputee lost an arm and part of his leg in a blast on a mission during Operation Desert Storm in the early 1990s. Two decades later, he would be introduced to a black lab that kept him from falling on several occasions by bearing his weight on a special harness and allowing him to walk more confidently.

“If she hadn't been there, I would have just face-planted,” said Marshall.

The pair spent more than a half-dozen years as a team before Lucy’s age moved her into retirement and Billy qualified for a new service dog named “Boomer.”

“I had Boomer and Lucy at the same time. I was trying to transition her out to let her just be a dog and live her life,” said Marshall.

He said Lucy may have retired, but she was always looking out for him.

Credit: John Becker
From left to right: “Lucy” black lab. Billy Marshall Air Force Veteran. Mike Kitchens Smoky Mountain Service Dogs. Bradley Walker Marine Veteran. “Bella” yellow lab.

"I was teaching (Boomer) to get my phone when it rings. Because that was another thing that Lucy would do … and Lucy would get tired of hearing the phone and she would go get it and bring it to me. Like, '(Boomer,) don't you get it?' She would go and sit in front of him like, 'See, this is how it's done,'” said Billy.

“Next month it will be a year since I had Jumper,” said Bradley Walker, a Marine veteran who lost both legs to a bomb blast that hit the Humvee he was driving during the Iraq War in 2006. “Laying in the hospital and missing my legs. There are so many things that go through your mind. You don't know what tomorrow is going to bring."

When Smoky Mountain Service Dogs matched him with a yellow lab named Bella, his life changed.

“Bella, she was something else. I mean, she was always there. Just being able to rely on her. Before, there was times you'd possibly be unsure. She'd be there and she'd be like, 'We got this,' and then you just track on. I mean, she'd be there with you every step of the way,” said Walker.

Bradley and Bella were a team for around six years before fast-moving cancer stole her from him.

Credit: Smoky Mountain Service Dogs
From left to right: “Boomer” black lab. Billy Marshall Air Force Veteran. Bradley Walker Marine Veteran. “Jumper” yellow lab

“We had an unshakeable bond,” said Walker.

It is that bond he and his fellow veteran Billy Marshall are looking to rebuild with their second service dog. They are one of only three veterans in the history of Smoky Mountain Service Dogs to qualify for a “second” dog.

Both are grateful, and so is the man who started this effort to return some freedom of mobility to troops wounded in battle.

“I’ve had multiple veterans who Mike I wouldn't be here if it wasn’t for my dog,” said Kitchens.

Anyone who would like to learn more about the Smoky Mountain Service Dogs, or who wants to donate or volunteer, can find more information about them online.

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