Every day Army Capt. John Kelly sees a reminder of his 2009-2010 deployment in Afghanistan. Inked on his right forearm is a large tattoo of six military“dog tags,” each inscribed with the name of a friend killed in battle.
“I saw people get killed — bad guys and good guys ... including a friend bleeding out on the ground. I got blown up a couple of times. It was a tough deployment,” the field artillery officer and paratrooper says as he sits with his family in the kitchen of his Jefferson Hills home.
After 10 years in the Army, he was honorably discharged in 2011. He current serves in the Army Reserves. The 33-year-old lives with what some call the “invisible wounds” of war — PTSD and traumatic brain injury.
“I fought for five years against depression, anxiety, panic attacks, hyper vigilance and nightmares,” he says.
Despite the support of his wife, Virginia, who he says “was a saint,” the joy he felt when their son Jackson was born four years ago was outweighed by anxiety about illnesses or accidents that could harm the baby.
“I really, really struggled. I thought I would never be happy again. I made a plan for suicide.”
Capt. Kelly tells his story while petting the head of the 90-pound German shepherd who entered his life in August 2016. “Ranger saved my life. My purpose in this world is to tell people about this dog.”
He travels the country with Ranger, speaking on behalf of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs Inc., the Florida organization that trained Ranger and 179 other dogs since 2010.
It costs $22,000 to provide 500-2,000 hours of training per dog so that they can deal with the medical and psychological needs of their partner. Recipients don’t pay a penny; costs are covered by donations from individuals, corporations and organizations.
The Steelers organization paid for Ranger’s training. More than 60,000 football fans cheered as Ranger and Capt. Kelly were introduced on the Heinz Stadium field in November 2016 during a third-quarter time-out in a game against the Dallas Cowboys. The Pirates organization is also raising $22,000 for a medical service dog.
Capt. Kelly and Ranger spread awareness of the need for medical service dogs and encourage donations. He believes the dogs “can make a dent in the suicide rate” for soldiers and others with PTSD.
In August 2016, Capt. Kelly still had a “suicide plan” in place when he traveled to Guardian Angels headquarters in Williston, Fla. Trainers suggested he and the dog go to the motel to rest.
“I took a nap and had a nightmare. Ranger woke me up and that stopped the nightmare,” Capt. Kelly says.
That was the turning point in his recovery. The suicide plan was scrapped.
Ranger is never far from his side, Capt. Kelly says he sleeps better, has fewer nightmares, “and I can handle anxiety and depression better. I’m also more connected with my family.”
Capt. Kelly also has sleep apnea, a potentially serious disorder. “When I stop breathing, Ranger wakes me up. “
Captain Kelly grew up in Bethel Park, and Mrs. Kelly grew up in Dormont. They married in Texas in 2009 and moved back home in 2015. Capt. Kelly got a job that he loves as a public affairs specialist with the Army Corps of Engineers.
“I could not ask for a better employer,” he says. “Three hundred fifty people in the federal building [Downtown] love Ranger,” though they don’t get to pet him.
Ranger wears a black vest with an American flag and the words, “Service Dog. Do Not Pet. Guardian Angels.”
When Ranger comes home from work every day, “the vest comes off and he is a pet,” Mrs. Kelly says. Ranger plays with Jackson and the family’s female German shepherd, Kiska, 8.
“Ranger cannot fix everything, but he allows me to live a quality life and a happy one,” he says.
Vietnam veterans Anthony Accamando and John Piazza, business partners in Veterans Cable Services, started Life Changing Service Dogs for Veterans in 2015. So far they’ve raised $350,000 for 16 dogs, including Ranger.
When they started their campaign, an average of 22 military veterans committed suicide each day, according to the Veterans Administration. Their goal is to raise a total of $484,000 to fund 22 dogs at $22,000 each in the 22-month period that ends on Veterans Day, Nov. 11.
Carol Bordon is the founder and CEO of Guardian Angels Medical Service Dogs.
“I love Tony Accamando, and I love Carol Bordon. They saved my life,” Capt. Kelly says.
Capt. Kelly and Ranger will be in Frick Park in Squirrel Hill next Saturday for the PNC annual Community Mutt Strutt, raising money for Ms. Bordon’s organization. There will be a dog parade, a dog costume contest, music, food and vendors from 10 a.m.-1 p.m. at the corner of Reynolds Street and South Homewood Avenue.
The cost is $22. Go to www.medicalservicedogs.org/event/mutt-strut-pittsburgh/ for more information and advance registration.
Last year, 400 people and 200 dogs raised a total of $200,000. Combined with donations, that was enough to train nine dogs.
Linda Wilson Fuoco: email@example.com or 412-263-1953 or on Facebook.