Veterans, service dogs, stroll in the park to raise awareness

  • Published
  • By U.S. Army Spc. Robert Vicens
  • U.S. Central Command Public Affairs

For the past nine years, prior to the Super Bowl, the Wounded Warriors Amputee Football Team has played against former National Football League players to raise awareness for veteran causes. This year, the game was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. That didn’t stop the veteran community from getting together for a noble cause: a “Salute-To-Service-Stroll.”

On the morning of Feb. 6, 2021, dozens of veterans and supporters, many with service dogs in tow, gathered behind the Amputee Veterans of America Support Team (AVAST) Color Guard, and walked along the Tampa Bay Riverwalk to raise awareness of the need for service dogs for veterans. The event was organized by Sierra Delta, a nonprofit aimed at connecting veterans with service-dog training.

BJ Ganem, founder and CEO of Sierra Delta, served nearly a decade in the Marine Corps before he was injured in Iraq in 2004, where he lost his leg. He overcame depression and what he describes as the most difficult times in his life thanks to an Olde English Bulldogge puppy named Dozer. The experience eventually led him to found the organization. 

“Sierra Delta was founded on the principle that dogs provide a special love,” Ganem said. “It’s a 35,000 year old technology where dogs and humans are working together, and for veterans like myself, they really solidify that sense of team.”

Camille Schrier, Miss America 2020, who attended to show her support for the event and the community, said she found the experience humbling.

“Many of these people have literally given a piece of themselves for their country,” Schrier said. “They flew across the world to protect me, so that I could do my job; they did it to keep our country free and safe.”

Among the attendees, Kelly Smith, a Navy veteran who served nearly two decades before losing her arm in 2014 in a grenade attack, participated in the walk alongside her golden-maned K-9 companion.

Cook, her Golden Retriever, has been with her for the last five years and he’s been a blessing, Smith said. She is grateful for the resources Sierra Delta has provided to help continue training for her dog.

“He’s been trained on everything from opening doors to pushing buttons,” Smith said, “He’s my balance dog, he’s my everything-- he’s my purpose. He gave me back a quality life and a reason to get up in the morning.”

An honored guest, United States Central Command Commander General Kenneth F. McKenzie attended the event and spoke words of support for the wounded veterans. Despite being introduced as a hero, McKenzie shook his head and addressed the veterans in the crowd:

“I am actually the one who is in the presence of heroes this morning,” McKenzie said. “(Being here) is a small thing that I can do, to show how much it means to me what these men and women have sacrificed. The wounds you bore for the United States, those last a lifetime. They’re not a momentary thing. We should always remember that as we think about the cost of war.”

Ganem says he plans to organize the dog walk every year.