By Melanie Wong
Photo special to SneakPEAK
Caption: Edwards resient Seth Molina was a a volunteer puppy raiser for Canine Companions for Independence, a nonprofit that raises and trains service dogs. Here is pictured with his CCI dog, Geri.
When most soldiers suffer a leg amputation while on duty, they generally don't return to the field. Not so with U.S. Army Major David Rozelle, who after losing his foot in a landmine accident in Iraq in 2001, returned to active duty 18 months later.
His case is extremely special, not only because he was the first American soldier to return to the battlefield after an amputation since the Civil War, but because he now helps other wounded soldiers with the help of Domi, a black lab-golden retriever mix. Domi, a female dog given to Rozelle in 2011 through the nonprofit Canine Companions for Independence, assists Rozelle in everything from bringing him his prosthetic leg from across the room to lifting his master's spirits by making the family's three boys laugh.
Rozelle returned to Iraq twice more, carrying his own medical supplies and learning how to do everything other soldiers did with a prosthetic leg. (Later, after his initial injury, his leg was amputated from the knee down.)
“I wanted to prove to myself I could do it,” Rozelle says. “What I learned is that it means a lot to my men to see me – missing my leg – and still commanding.”
Today, Rozelle is a professor of military sciences at the University of Colorado at Boulder. He takes Domi to visit wounded soldiers and her presence helps break the ice. He says that since he's gotten Domi, she has rarely left his side.
“I've spent 10 years at war. I've served three tours of duty. And I've lost my leg. I've had some pretty bad days,” Rozelle says. “But I haven't had a bad day since Domi came into my life.”
Training a service dog
Rozelle is one of hundreds who have benefited from a furry companion through CCI, the country's largest and oldest service-dog organizations. CCI trains the dogs from puppies, matches them to people with a wide range of disabilities and plays a part in the partnership for the remainder of the dog's life. The organization has been around since 1975 and has had a presence in the Vail Valley for nine years. In fact, the nonprofit just completed its ninth-annual Vail Valley fundraiser last Monday, Aug. 20 with special guests Rozelle and a young man named Shawn Miller in attendance with their dogs.
Vail Valley locals have been involved with the organization in various ways, from fundraising to volunteering to raise a puppy that will eventually become an assistance dog. From eight weeks of age, volunteers foster a puppy for 18 months, teaching the animal good house manners and basic commands, along with socializing them by bringing them anywhere their future owners might need to go.
Edwards resident Seth Molina, 13, knew he wanted to help raise a service dog after a CCI dog visited his classroom at Vail Mountain School. As his mitzvah service project, he became a volunteer puppy raiser for CCI, adopting Geri, a golden-lab mix.
Seth taught Geri 30 basic commands, brought her to dog training classes, and took her everywhere from the airport to the mall to restaurants. Last week, the Molinas’ time with Geri ended, and they turned the dog over to professional trainers to determine if she has the temperament to be a service dog.
“I wish she could stay, but I know she's going to help someone who really needs her,” Seth says. “She does a great job, and I really hope she does well.”
The dogs that are chosen to continue training then complete another six-to-nine months of “puppy college,” as Seth puts it. While there, they learn to turn lights on and off, retrieve dropped items, press buttons and more.
Giving the gift of independence
In Colorado, there are currently 60 dogs in training, including 10 under the care of inmates at the Kit Carson Correctional Center. The dogs are then paired with humans, at no cost to the person, with all costs covered by the nonprofit and the funds they raise – and the dogs are in high demand. Currently there is a two-year waiting list for a CCI dog, says the organization's Colorado director Paul O'Brien.
Overall, about $40,000 goes into the breeding, training and care of a dog before it is paired with a person, he says, but the difference it makes in people's lives is fully worth it.
“Our name really says it all,” O'Brien says. “We provide dogs to provide independence in people's lives. The changes can be for an adult who uses a wheelchair who has tough time opening doors, to see them be able to participate more in life, and even get a job. Those stories are absolutely incredible. With children, we see that dog become the child's best friend. The child will really come out of their shell and bond with the dog. I always say that as a puppy raiser, you get to be part of giving people independence, and it's an amazing gift to be part of.”