The Battle Begins: SEAL Frog vs Army Dog

Frog Dog Beard OffAn epic inter-service, inter-species battle to raise awareness about veteran suicide, service dogs and PTSD. http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff
Gander, a 3 1/2 year old Labradoodle is a battle buddy for an Army veteran in Chicago. Gander, with an online community of over 300,000 friends distinguished himself as a real hero when he saved a young girl last year from a charging stray and now does triple duty as a therapy dog, service dog and PTSD/suicide awareness advocate. he visits VA hospitals, nursing homes and hospices around the country. Rescued from death row in Colorado, Gander was trained by a prison program and then paroled to Freedom Service Dogs in Denver and trained for service as a mobility and PTSD dog. Gander is listed as co-curator for, In Dogs We Trust, a collection of inspirational dog stories by NYT bestselling authors. Learn more about Gander in this short PBS Video here: http://chicagotonight.wttw.com/2014/02/26/ptsd-service-dog
Rob DuBois is a speaker, teacher, coach and consultant who was labeled a “smart power authority” while assisting U.S., British and Iraqi forces in Baghdad. He is a multilingual Navy SEAL with operational experience in more than thirty countries. Rob is author of the book, Powerful Peace. Rob has presented his “Think like the Adversary” workshop to military units in the hottest combat zones, Fortune 500 corporate customers, and government agencies. He has served on the Deputy Secretary of Defense’s Senior Integration Group and directed operations for the DoD’s Red Team. Founder and CEO of SEAL of Peace Consulting, he lives with his family in the Washington, DC area and works anywhere on the planet.
The contest, co-sponsored by Dogington Post will run from March 1 to March 20th online. You can vote for the Navy Frog or the Army Dog at http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff  and add pictures of your own bearded companion, “bearding” photos or best human/dog pair shot. Prizes will be handed out daily and grand prize winners announced on March 20th in Denver at the Watering Bowl, a dog friendly pub. The loser of the contest will have all hair, except his trademark beard, shorn off. The public can participate by uploading their own beard, bearded pair shots or “bearding” photos here: http://dogingtonpost.com/beardoff
The event will coincide with a book signing for In Dogs We Trust with five of the book’s author’s on hand and several invited celebrities. All proceeds from the event will benefit dog and veteran charities.
Follow the events on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ganderservicedog or here on veterantraveler.com
Follow Rob at https://www.facebook.com/SEALofPeace
And remember to upload your pics and vote for your favorite beard!

ALL proceeds from the sale of items during the event (to be posted later) will go to one of four wounded warrior charities.

Register now for the event:

Book Launch/Beard Off

Hero Dogs: Part II

“There’s often a reason why people and dogs bite. It’s about self-protection. If we respect what we may not know about the suffering of others and look at them compassionately, we open the door that can lead to understanding.”
― Jennifer Skiff, The Divinity of Dogs

Hero DogsThis will be my last word on the awards. I am still flabbergasted that something as simple as a dog contest could turn into such a vicious, destructive force. You know I am not prone to criticism of others. But, the Hero Dogs are, for me, a sad metaphor for everything wrong with the internet, corporate America and the non-profits that lose their way, wrap themselves in good intentions, but end up fixated on monetary rewards so much that they lose sight of the compassions they purport to further. I’ll explain.

The American Humane Association (AHA) Hero Dog Awards are nearly over. Dozens of contestants devoted almost five months of their lives and enlisted the support of hundreds of their friends in support of the contest. I am glad it is coming to a close. It was akin to Vietnam for me: Never ending, the casualties mounting, the participants reviled and the administration in charge non-responsive to the people who fought on their behalf.

What finally angered me was not the collective questionable behavior of the “team” that won nor the deceptive marketing scheme devised by the AHA that is meant to convince potential advertisers of the benefits of supporting a weak social media campaign and their Hallmark Channel red carpet awards show . It was the complete lack of regard for the emotional welfare of the people who worked so hard to give them the numbers they needed to manipulate sponsors into continuing to finance the marathon contest that finally got to me.

The awards were effectively “fixed” from day one. Last year’s winner leveraged his celebrity and backed a team with his large following. The hundreds of contestants who participated as individuals were doomed to defeat from day one and the AHA knew it. Dozens of worthy dogs were excluded, not because of the strength of the competition, but questionable motives and morals of the juggernaut leader that had planned well in advance to dominate the awards. His following was not privy to his refusals to level the playing field even when sponsors were threatening to leave. Instead were falsely led them to believe he was being banned from the awards among other fabrications and exaggerations. Much of what he transmitted to his following was carefully spun to make him look like the victim of both the AHA and other trolls and “whiners,” as he called them, who wished him ill. He made mountains out of molehills to rally support, hurting all of us in the process. It worked. He obliterated the integrity of the contest and damaged the intended mission of the awards because he believed he was acting within the rules. And the AHA stood silent. Just two question: If the organization that, in part, built your celebrity would you threaten its viability? If you knew sponsors had threatened to pull out of the event because of your dominance would you still offer to support someone for the coming year’s contest even while you were in the midst of scrutiny and controversy for your behavior?

Most of the voters this year had cast ballots in last year’s event. The AHA, despite touting big numbers for participation, has a laughable presence on social media platforms. This award’s contest is poorly designed and does little to positive grow their membership or aid their branding. Their media package they pump to potential advertisers says they generate millions of visits to the Hero Dog website. In reality only a few thousand came and many were returnees who visited, again and again, to cast votes for the same slate of dogs. Some supporters openly admitted to using as many as seven email accounts to effect the outcome. Why did AHA allow this? Simple: Had they ended the awards within a sensible time frame and bern strict, they would have revealed their sadly low audience reach. If you do the math, it becomes apparent that the million plus votes allegedly cast, when divided by the 90 days of voting and allowing for the people who used several email accounts to cast multiple votes, made for very weak market saturation. And seven of the dogs received 1000+ votes a day that were all from the same boter base. Multiplied over 90 days that is 560,000+ votes that should not impact advertisers. If you follow the finalists on Facebook it is easy to see that the winners of each division, with a couple of exceptions, had no real influence on the internet beyond the support given them by last year’s winner. One such hero dog, today, had 6 likes and no reposts for a request for support if their dog in the final month long round of voting for overall winner. The numbers are a sham and the AHA should be ashamed of such a blatant manipulation of the numbers to con advertisers into paying higher than reasonable ad or sponsorship rates.

The list of transgressions by competitors and their supporters is long and in some cases frightening. A few of them:

Widespread machine voting and fraud…

Death Threats (yes, really) to some competitors…

Reporting of pictures, posts and comments as spam and abusive so they would be removed, robbing competitors of visibility…

Angry lambasting of competitors and the AHA on their Facebook walls and the walls of the AHA and other competitors.

Memes and captioned photos calling unspecified competitors “trolls” or “whiners” which colored all contestants negatively…I repeatedly asked for names of those claimed to be trolling, but was never answered.

The AHA knew by the end of the third week who would win and that none of the 150+ others had a reasonable shot of the ridiculously low prize money. Yet they remained silent and allowed hundreds/thousands of supporters to keep voting in order to boost their association’s dubious page view totals for advertisers. Most of us by this time were already apologizing to our friends for our impositions, unaware that we were actually calling on them to waste their time and enthusiasm on a lost cause. What I suggested was to add 3 Ambassador selections to the final winner’s circle. Those picked would be ones thought by the judges to be examples of what the contest was meant to exemplify. I was told it was $15,000 per tribute video if they did that so it was impractical. That’s awfully short sighted. A dog like Charlie Boy or Tennille could have garnered more positive attention than the other winners combined. Any acknowledgement of one or two others who had worked so hard to promote the AHA might well have dissipated some of the anger and resentment felt by dozens of contestants.

Open attacks on other competitors meant to completely discredit them: One veteran was told to crawl back into his hole with his booze and drugs after he called to question the eligibility of another dog. It was an allusion to his PTSD that did not set well with me. Another, who actually won their category, said that the stress was so bad that she was losing hair and having other somatic issues.

One dog, who won his division, clearly had a padded profile. I reviewed conversation transcripts from the dog’s previous owner, spoke to several professional handlers and am now 100% convinced his entire profile was fabricated. And the chief supporters of the dog and the AHA knew all along that the dog was not what he was presented to be….

That the AHA called this kind of behavior,”spirited competition” angered me, but not nearly as much as their actions after the last week of the competition. I awaited word about the voting outcome, as did the hundreds of people who supported other dogs, and never received an announcement of the category winners. All contestant profiles were simply deleted from the AHA website. I learned of the winners though their Facebook pages cheers of success. Winners had been notified while the losers were treated, not like supporters of the AHA, but just losers. We were not even given a “thank you” email for our three months of service to the AHA. We were left to explain to our friends that we were pretty sure we lost. The three months of service that helped them pre-sell ads to sponsors and to convince celebrity judges to participate were not recognized. The trials and tribulations we all endured they hoped would go unnoticed if they remained mute so they would not have image issues seem by their deep pocketed celebs… We were social and financial chimp change.

We were used. The AHA suffered from what pilots know as “target fixation”. It is when you are so focused on a the end result that you crash into the ground or get shot down because you were blind to everything else around you. They’ve lost considerable grass roots support. But I was told by one staffer they didn’t care. Hero Dogs only represents a small portion of their income.

I have taken a vow to never participate in another vanity contest or one that requires me to exploit my audience or my friends. The results of these kinds of contests, now that people know how to game the tallies, are questionable at best. And they bring out the worst in all of us. And with groups like the AHA caring only about numbers and willing to let competitors wreck havoc on reputations and serenity for the sake of a few dollars, it would make me an accomplice to such behavior.

The combined time and energy expended on the Hero Dog Awards could have generated much more tangible good for much more worthy organizations.

In the end I am grateful for the new connections I made and for being able to share Gander with a broader group of like minds. Gander’s Facebook page, which did not exist before the awards, is now a special sanctuary for dog lovers and a community of supportive friends. Now it is time for us to move forward toward common goals with positive, not destructive, consequences.

 

 

 

 

Take a Gander…

“Dogs are minor angels…”

–Jonathan Carroll

It seems including a service dog in my logo wasn’t just wishful thinking: I was on my way home from watching Frank & Robot yesterday when I received a call from Freedom Service Dogs in Denver telling me I was soon to be blessed with a new traveling companion. It was a touch of synchronicity, because the film was, in part, about companionship and our dependence on others, no matter how tough or self reliant we imagine ourselves to be…

I have had a series of best friends of different breeds. My dogs and I have always viewed the world together with a slight turn of the head before heading off together to enjoy a quiet walk in the woods or a sunset over the lake. Dogs are charitable sidekicks: always seeming to know what not to say at just the right time.

This will be new for me. Unconditional love is part of a dog’s DNA, so I feel a little guilty about asking more of a friend who, even without training, will do more for me than I will ever do for him.

FSD tells me that Gander is the name of my PTSD savvy buddy-to-be. He is a chocolate, mixed breed who was rescued from a shelter before being enlisted in the service and trained by FSD’s extraordinary team of handlers.

FSD was founded in 1987 by P.J. and Michael Roche after a disabling car accident that personally informed them about the tremendous need for canine helpers. The program has strategic alliances with the VA, Denver University’s Institute for Human/Animal Connection and the Graduate School of Social Work and Assistance Dogs International a training standards organization.

I was in China and in the midst of my physical and PTSD symptoms worsening I found myself rescuing local strays and in doing so I noticed improvement in my affect and mobility. I had seen videos of pets being brought to nursing homes and prisons to combat depression, but I had no idea that it was a fast evolving treatment strategy in the U.S. for veterans. Soon after, I watched a video about FSD and began to explore the possibility of a service dog for myself. I was sure that a match for me would be life changing.

FSD answered my email the same day and I downloaded the application. FSD is appropriately cautious and very thorough. Each of the 35-40 dogs they train each year costs from $20-25,000 for its 9-12 months of specialized training and is then gifted, at no cost, to the veteran. Before receiving a dog, the recipient must meet eligibility requirements, wait 12-18 months for a match and then attend three weeks of training with handlers and the dog.

The professional staff considers themselves to be”dog people” first and foremost. That means each veteran sign contracts that call for high-level care of the service dog. FSD makes a lifetime training and care commitment to both the dog and his human.

The application process was a several week journey for me. I secured the required medical evaluation and certification from my VA doctor, finished my personal statement, and took it with me to FSD in Denver for the required face-to-face interview and matching procedure. For matching, the handlers brought in poodles, labs, and a gentle giant of a dog they appropriately called Zeus. They watched carefully to see how dogs and I got along. I not-so-secretly hoped for a black lab. But, one look at Gander’s intelligent, confident, scruffy face yesterday and I couldn’t remember why I wanted a different breed of dog.

I will be heading for Denver in September to meet and attend school with Gander. In the interim, he is being taught to to do specific tasks the team identified for me:

  • Retrieving items to my hand
  • Turning lights on when I enter my house
  • “Check it out” or “clear the room”: Having him check for anyone else that might be there.
  • Find the phone to retrieve it in an emergency situation.
  • Find a person when needed
  • Brace to get up: He will help me get back up if I fall. (When I first spoke to FSD I had real trouble with autoimmune arthritis issues. They are better now. )
  • Block/Post: He will stand in front or behind me to create “safe” space in public
  • Lean and interact: He will lean on me to keep me grounded and attending to what is around me. I hear he loves to lean in and kiss…
  • He will interact with me in ways that will help pull me out of night terrors or nightmares
  • He will heel very close to my right leg (it is usually the left) when I am walking so that he can help me walk across pedestrian bridges and stay more in the middle away from real or imagined danger
  • My life has already changed. I’m walking a little brisker and I’m attending to people with dogs the way an expectant father cops at infants in the supermarket. School in Colorado can’t get here fast enough. As Corey Ford said: “Properly trained, a man can be dog’s best friend.”
    My indiegogo campaign for Gander:
    http://indiegogo. com/veterantraveler

I will be telling you more about my minor angel in weeks to come. In the meantime, please follow FSD on Twitter: http://twitter.com/freedomsvcdogs and visit their service dog website to see how you might help.

;

;

How to say “Semper Fi” in Polish

I dread turbulence, but I worry more about unexpected troubles on the trip through immigration or a TSA line. After seven hours on a train, followed by 15 hours in the air, I lack enthusiasm for a jet stream of questions from a uniformed officer of my own country. Asking why I have been in China for seven years is reasonable, questioning why I want to return always seems a little odd. After boot camp and OCS I was pretty certain I would never voluntarily put myself in a situation where I would be screamed at 24/7, but after a few minutes with TSA personnel at LAX last year I realized we are all back in boot camp and not likely to graduate as long as the war on terror continues. But, I digress…

After clearing customs in Chicago–interesting that you do the same thing with immigration that you do in a minefield–I mustered the last of my energy to catch the shuttle for hotel.

In sharp contrast to my greeting at O’Hare was the outstretched hand of Paul Kowalik the man behind the desk at the Baymount Inn near the airport. We had never met before, but after learning that I was a veteran he enthusiastically welcomed me home and thanked me for my service. It was the first time anyone had ever said those words to me. My peers from the Vietnam era must be as shocked as I am, but grateful that the one thing most people in our divided country can agree on is an appreciation of those who have served in the armed forces.

Paul’s actions seemed heartfelt, but I sensed there was something motivating his special enthusiasm and asked him about his feelings. He told me his brother had served in the Marines and had been deployed to Iraq shortly after the allied invasion.

I was no longer jet lagged and listened intently to Paul tell me the story of his family’s emigration to America. Their father, who had been doing business here for a decade, moved Paul’s mother and brother to Chicago. He died only two years after relocating, but, the family was determined to gain citizenship. Paul’s brother Jakub joined the military after the 9-11 attacks hoping to make a difference for his adopted country and to gain a leg up on immigration while earning money to pursue college after enlistment. There are approximately 31,000 “green-card” soldiers, Marines, sailors and airmen in the U.S. military. They’re permanent legal residents but not U.S. citizens. Yet, like Jakub, they chose to defend the country where they live.

On Mothers Day 2003 Jakub and other young Marines ordered to call home. Danuta Kowalik, his mother, was thrilled to hear from her son and grateful he was safe and able to call home. She asked about the $900 protective vest she had sent to him, as did many parents when safer gear was not issued to troops, and asked about his work. It was the last time she would speak to him. He became the first non-citizen soldier killed in Iraq when the unexploded ordnance he had volunteered to help move detonated.

“He was kind and generous and volunteered for everything” said his brother Paul. His family is no different. Danuta belongs to Gold Star Mothers an organization with the the highest dues and most difficult membership requirements: You must have lost a child to war. Danuka devotes time, talent and money to helping families who have made the ultimate sacrifice. And Paul reaches out to veterans at every chance. It is not unusual for him to pick up the bill at a diner for a table of new graduates from nearby Great Lakes Naval Station.

In a ceremony held by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and attended by Illinois Lt. Governor Pat Quinn, Jakub was granted posthumous citizenship. “I think that when someone gives their life for our country, they certainly should be citizens,” said Lt. Gov. Pat Quinn, who attended the ceremony. “I think Jakub is in that great tradition of patriots who believed in liberty, freedom and democracy.”

Danuta Kowalik clutched a framed certificate that officially granted her son, Lance Cpl. Jakub Kowalik, something that, in her eyes, he had already earned–American citizenship. “Citizenship for Jakub was a special thing because he dreamed of it,” Danuta Kowalik of Schaumburg said Tuesday, on what would have been her son’s 22nd birthday. “It was like a special gift I got for my son today. I’m sure he’s smiling now.”

And in December of last year, just before his birthday, Paul was granted U.S. citizenship. “This is the greatest country in the world. They welcomed me to America last year. I know how that feels, so I want to honor any soldier who was away fighting for us,” he said.

I saw Paul last week and will see him many more times I am sure. I am awed by their faithfulness to each other, their son’s memory and to veteran soldiers. “We are family now,” he told me as we hugged goodbye. “Welcome Home!”

 

 

Related story on NPR: 25 troops become citizens. Kandahar