May 28, 2012
By LIVI STANFORD
THE VILLAGES — Recovering from a stroke, the veteran was having a hard time.
But what started out as a normal day at the long-term care facility in Illinois was far from it when a special visitor arrived. Nero, a military service dog, brightened the veteran’s day.
That visitor, according to Robert Special Jr., the son of a Village of Chatham resident, transformed the veteran’s morale. “When we walked in, his wife was caring for him, and when he saw Nero his eyes lit up and he showed emotion,” Special said, for the first time since the veteran had suffered a stroke.
Immediately, he said, the veteran fed Nero snacks.
Such success stories are what keep Special inspired as president of Save-A-Vet Charity Riders, “a volunteer division of Save-A-Vet which supports disabled military, law enforcement and first-responder veterans injured in the line of duty both at home and abroad,” according to information from the Charity Riders.
Save-A-Vet “helps rescue military and law enforcement working dogs and other service animals from being put down when their service to country and community is done by providing housing and relief for disabled veterans who help take care of them,” according to information from Save-A-Vet.
The dogs have made a difference in veterans’ lives, according to Danny Scheurer, president of Save-A-Vet.
“We had one veteran who would just wake up and go to work,” he said.
Now, since he has gotten the dog, “I have seen him take the dog out for a walk. This is a guy who hasn’t left his house (other than to go to work) since Vietnam.”
Charity Riders holds nine events a year, which may include fundraisers and other events to support veterans, military, law enforcement or first responders disabled in the line of duty.
Special, who served in both the Navy and Air Force from 1999 to 2011, and was honorably discharged as a sergeant, said the organization is important to him on many levels.
“It is important getting people together, getting the word out and helping disabled veterans,” he said.
Equally important, he said, is the influence of these military and law enforcement working dogs and remembering how much they have been through.
“The thing that gets me are these dogs,” he said. “They don’t have a choice. They are trained to go three and a half years and do their jobs until they stop working. The soldiers’ lives were saved by the dogs.”
Reflecting on Memorial Day, Special thought of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice, and the dogs.
“Memorial Day is a day to remember our fallen comrades that are no longer with us and paid the ultimate sacrifice,” he said. “But it is also a day to remember the other forgotten soldiers: the dogs.”
Special is referring to the service dogs that are adopted by disabled veterans and, like humans, have served their country in Iraq and Afghanistan, and other places around the world sacrificing normal lives while receiving similar battle scars.
When asked about his son Robert, a smile immediately spreads across Robert Special Sr.’s face.
The Navy veteran, who served from 1963 to 1967 as a seaman and was part of an effort to thwart an assassination attempt on President Lyndon Johnson, said he was proud of his son and his work with the organization.
“The organization helps disabled veterans and is therapy for the dogs and the vets,” he said. “It gives them a purpose of doing something in helping the dog and having the dog help them.”
Robert Jr.’s stepmother, Barbara, also spoke proudly of her step son’s work.
“I think what it is showing in him is that he can give,” she said. “I think so many times in life we walk through life wondering what we are getting while showing us we had found an avenue where we can give.”
Father and son agree that they share a common bond through a life in service.
While one served in a war overseas and the other stateside, it is something the two have in common, which only strengthens their support for the organization and the way it improves both the dogs’ lives and those of veterans.
Robert Jr. said he most admired that his father volunteered and went to Vietnam.
“A lot of people decided not to go,” he said. “He stood up and volunteered.”
Founded in 2007, Scheurer said the idea for the organization came about while he was serving in Iraq and learned that a contractor had decided to leave the company’s K-9s behind when his contract was not renewed.
Scheurer began an effort to try to save the dogs but was unsuccessful.
Nonetheless, the idea for the organization was born.
On a personal level, Scheurer, a disabled veteran who was injured in Baghdad in 2005 and is 70 percent disabled, said Nero, his military service dog, has changed his life for the better.
“I used to wake up and drink till I blacked out,” he said.
That is no longer the case with the relationship and responsibility that comes with taking care of Nero.
Nero also will not let him sleep in, Scheurer said.
“If you don’t wake up, he will come up and stick his nose in my mouth,” he said laughing.
Like Scheurer, Nero had a difficult life in combat serving in the Middle East, where he would sniff out bombs. At first, the transition with a consistent owner was difficult for Nero, according to Scheurer.
“Whenever we got him, he would be in work mode,” he said. “He would constantly be looking for explosives and always wanted to search a room.”
However, seven months later, Nero began to trust Scheurer and a bond was formed.
“Now, you are lucky if he will heel,” he said of the 11-year-old dog who has adjusted to civilian life. “After six to seven months he would not leave my side.”
The bond is a special one.
“The dog has seen everything I have seen,” Scheurer said. “He doesn’t question me. As always, he has been there for me, and if he has a nightmare I know what he is going through. It is living with your best friend that you were deployed with.”
This summer, Scheurer said he plans to come to The Villages in hopes of starting a local chapter like the one in Illinois and hopes to have land donated.
Ideally, he said, he would like one in every state.
Robert Jr., who has visited his father numerous times, said it would be a great idea to have a chapter here.
“It would be good therapy for the veterans and the people that support them,” he said. For more information about Save-A-Vet and Charity Riders, call 773-656-5304.
Livi Stanford is a reporter with the Daily Sun. She can be reached at 753-1119, ext. 9245, or [email protected].