Jay Paris: Freedom Dogs supplies heroes for our heroes

Everyone needs a Charles in their life, especially someone willing to give his life for others.

“I was shot five times by an enemy AK-47,’’ said Richard Gonzalez, a retired Marines staff sergeant.

Gonzalez survived the 2004 assault in Iraq, a battle in which he was awarded the Purple Heart because of his bravery.

Richard Gonzalez, a retired Marines staff sergeant, with his service dog Charles a Labrador from the Freedom Dogs nonprofit. Courtesy photo

Richard Gonzalez, a retired Marines staff sergeant, with his service dog Charles a Labrador from the Freedom Dogs nonprofit. Courtesy photo

But after being a hero on the battlefield, other battles commenced once he returned home.

While bullets and bombs were no longer pointed his way, Gonzalez had to combat posttraumatic stress (PTS) and traumatic brain injury (TBI).

That’s what led him to Charles, a lovable Labrador from the Freedom Dogs. The program, which matches a companion dog with a Marine needing assistance, is an endeavor that deserves our respect.

“There was one night I was sleeping — I had really bad night tremors — and I reached out for Charles,’’ Gonzalez said. “I couldn’t feel him and I remember panicking because when I connect with him it gets me back to reality.

“He was probably two feet away but he could sense I needed him. He moved all the way up onto my shoulders and put his paws on my chest. When he did that, I was back home again.’’

Once again, the Freedom Dogs is holding its annual golf tournament. On March 1 at the Del Mar Country Club, the nonprofit’s lone fundraiser will collect money so other heroes can have their own Charles.

Freedom Dogs works through the Wounded Warrior Battalion-West at Camp Pendleton. It provides dogs as an enhancement to the rehabilitation of our active duty military with PTS and TBI.

“I’m out as a productive member of the civilian world now and Charles is the reason why,’’ Gonzalez said.

Freedom Dogs started 11 years ago. With Camp Pendleton’s blessing, it introduced two dogs to two Marines struggling physically and psychologically after their duty.

Jody Root trains Labradors and his wife Sharon, is nurse at the University of California, San Diego. They helped get the program off the ground and now are sky-high about its results.

More than 25 dogs have provided guidance and love to Marines since its inception. None of those courageous men and women rebounding from PTS and TBI have committed suicide, which is among the leading causes of death of returning personnel injured in such a horrific manner.

The dogs and Marines go through a six-month training period. The bond they form is unbreakable.

“The dog becomes a fellow Marine is the best way I can describe it,’’ Jody Root said. “And Marines never let down another Marine, so the dog actually starts thinking like a Marine. It becomes a real partner.’’

Someone leading a hand to the cause is NBA great Bill Walton. Along with his wife, Lori, Freedom Dogs is a mission they believe in strongly.

“We owe these men and women so much when they return,’’ he said. “Sometimes they aren’t the same as when they left, after they were willing to give the ultimate sacrifice for us.

“Sometimes what they need is a best friend — there’s nothing like a best friend. And that’s what these dogs become, their best friend.

“I’m the luckiest guy in the world to be involved with Freedom Dogs after seeing what it does for these brave heroes.’’

Gonzalez’s four-legged hero, Charles, has passed away. But his impact remains, as Gonzalez became a dog trainer after Charles provided a light on so many dark, lonely nights.

Kilo is the dog Gonzalez, 35, is training, named for his battalion that fought so valiantly that terrible day in Fallujah, Iraq. Gonzalez survived the five bullets that pierced his body and the inhumanity he witnessed. Now he’s helping others follow suit.

“If there is anybody I know that is struggling, I push my Marine brothers and sisters toward Freedom Dogs,’’ he said. “Because I know it really works.’’

We know about a dog’s role in being a man’s best friend. Freedom Dogs allows civilians to contribute, too.

Follow Jay Paris at jparis_sports. His book, “Game of My Life Chargers” is available at book stores and at amazon.com.

 

Freedom Dogs Golf Tournament and 

Banquet

When: March 1 at noon.

Where: Del Mar Country Club.

Why: Funds raised help Freedom Dogs match service dogs with military personnel suffering from post traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury.

Cost: $350 per player, which includes golf, lunch and dinner.

Information: freedomdogs.org or (619) 223-6574.

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