Justin Lansford and his longtime girlfriend, Carol Balmes, love doting on their golden retriever, Gabe. But there is much more to this four-legged friend than meets the eye.
“The less I use my wheelchair, the more I need his help in smaller tasks and the more he is there,” Lansford, a U.S. Army veteran, told ABC News’ Lara Spencer. “It has been very comforting to know that.”
Lansford, of Silver Spring, Md., was severely injured during deployment when he was struck by an improvised explosive device.
“I was a paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne Division and we were in eastern Afghanistan in early 2012,” he said. “We struck an IED and it flipped my truck completely. I had bilaterally severed femurs which resulted in the amputation of my left leg.”
While recovering at Walter Reade National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., Lansford was introduced to Gabe through the Warrior Canine Connection, a nonprofit that pairs support dogs with wounded troops.
“He helps me with one thing to the next. I can use him as a stable surface to lean on, as I get to and from the ground,” Lansford added. “If I fall, he’ll come up running next to me and I can use him to push off of to get up off the ground.”
“I have a prosthetic lubricant to slide my leg into place in the morning and he can retrieve that,” he said.
At just 2-years-old, Gabe has been working as Lansford’s service dog for five months, always ready to help his soldier from the moment he gets home.
But Lansford isn’t the first veteran’s life Gabe has touched.
“I was on a dismount patrol on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border,” fellow U.S. Army veteran Spencer Milo said. “I see a kid, you know, 15-years-old, a suicide bomber. You knew what it was.
“I just remember a big, loud noise, a big flash. And I remember landing.”
To help with his post traumatic stress disorder, Milo’s doctors suggested he work with a puppy named Gabe, who was a candidate for the Warrior Canine Connection.
“It was really hard to go back into public without being so on edge that it made others uncomfortable,” Milo, of Colorado Springs, Colo., recalled. “I’d sweat profusely and I’d be incredible grumpy.”
Slowly but surely, however, Gabe helped Milo to begin tackling daily activities such as riding the metro and going to the grocery store.
“We went to a grocery store and by the time I got to the grocery store, I remember sitting there and talking to a couple people that I was with, like, ‘I just did that,’” he said. “And once I started working with Gabe, I started feeling like myself again.
“My family, my wife started seeing me again, and that’s incredible. You can’t put that into words.”
The Warrior Canine Connection is trying to make this a standard of care, working to provide research and the latest science to prove this kind of therapy helps with treating PTSD and brain injury.
“We’re involving the service members who are in treatment for post traumatic stress and brain injury in the process of training dogs,” said Rick Yount, executive director of the Warrior Canine Connection in Brookeville, Md.. “And through the process, we’re teaching a dog that the world is a safe place. … [It] creates an opportunity for the warrior who’s teaching that dog to incorporate that same notion that the world truly is a safe place in the civilian world.”
Milo hasn’t seen Gabe since he became Lansford’s service dog, so he traveled to Silver Spring, Md., to see how Gabe was doing. The two men had never met.
“I owe everything to Gabe,” Milo said. “I would jump in front of a bus for Gabe, and I know he would do the same for me. And I know he’d do the same for Justin.”
Lansford couldn’t agree more.
“I have really had a chance to say thank you to Spencer for working with Gabe and getting Gabe to a point where he could work and help me,” Lansford said. “Being able to see Spencer face to face has been awesome.”
The Warrior Canine Connection is expecting a new littler in the coming weeks. They have a live puppy cam on their website where you can watch them grow.