Charlotte, N.C. — A fox red Labrador retriever named Festus has given Marine Staff Sgt. Nick Bennett something he hasn't had since he heard a whistling noise from a rocket attack in Anbar Province in Iraq in 2004.
He has his life back.
A Marine reservist from Franklin, Ind., Bennett had asked 10 years ago to deploy during Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Technically working as a communications officer, he also pulled security duty at his forward operating base just outside of Baghdad, which is where he was struck by a rocket attack Nov. 11, 2004.
The blast that hit Bennett, on his way to assist other Marines, badly wounded his legs and arms.
He had been in Iraq for less than three months. When he returned home, the loss of muscle in his right leg made it hard to keep his balance and pick up something up from the floor. The explosion also caused him to panic whenever he heard loud noises.
He turned to the Indiana Canine Assistant Network for help and found it through a dog trained by Charlie Petrizzo, who breeds dogs to be donated for service on his three-acre property just south of Charlotte.
Petrizzo, a Catholic who formerly worked in financial services and is now retired, said he felt compelled to put his faith into action. After he suffered two near-death experiences, a family Labrador retriever helped him heal and dogs have remained a source of comfort for him.
So after years as a Fortune 500 executive, he searched for a way involving dogs that would enable him to help others who needed similar healing.
He founded Project2Heal, which breeds Labradors and donates them to organizations to train as service or companion dogs. They serve the disabled or injured veterans such as Bennett, but they are also trained to help children who suffer from seizures, autism spectrum disorder and more.
The "puppies," as Petrizzo affectionately calls them, get all the attention, but the idea is to help people. Project2Heal is his way of expressing Catholic charity, he said. "Charity comes from the word 'caritas.' It means Christ-like love."
Petrizzo works with up to 50 volunteers at Project2Heal who handle the daily operations. They start when each litter of carefully bred pups are just two days old, Petrizzo says, "imprinting" them with the sights and smells they'll need to understand later as trained service dogs. When the most promising puppies are just weeks old, they are given to service dog training groups for specialized training.
In the case of Bennett's service dog, Festus, Project2Heal sent the pup to Indiana Canine Assistant Network which then matched him with Bennett one year ago. It was the organization's 100th service dog, and its first with a combat-wounded veteran.
Now, 3-year-old Festus is helping the former Marine in ways he never imagined.
There's the "brace" command where Festus lets Bennett lean on his back for support to enable him to put on his socks and reach for items on the bottom shelf at stores. Before Festus came along, Bennett said, he simply didn't go to the store by himself. Now, he can go out anytime he wants.
Festus helps Bennett walk straight, too keeping him from sidling too much in one direction because of his leg injuries.
And the "nudge" command makes possible experiences like going to a Chicago White Sox game, despite the worry of loud noises and crowds triggering his post-traumatic stress disorder.
"Like a lot of teams, they have fireworks when the White Sox hit a home run," Bennett said, but the whistling and exploding noises of fireworks can set off a panic episode where he can zone out for 20 minutes or more.
Without Festus, "I'd be hoping the White Sox do not hit a home run," Bennett told the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte. But the dog nudges him, pushing his cold nose into the side of Bennett's leg until he snaps out of the trance. Now these episodes last only five minutes or so.
Festus has not just helped Bennett, though. Bennett's wife, his sole caregiver, is not afraid to leave him now to run errands or take time for herself.
"The anxiety that he has lowered in her, you can't ask for anything more in this world," he said.
Because Petrizzo bred the dog that has given him his life back, Bennett calls him a "major angel."
It's the simple things Festus does to help him that truly amaze Bennett, noting that he can now "do a flight of stairs like I did 10 years ago."
Despite the 26 surgeries to repair his hands and legs, he still feels pain from his injuries, but the pain has lessened considerably. And, he added, "If I fall, he's going to be there to pick me up."
[Guilfoyle is a contributor to the Catholic News Herald, newspaper of the Diocese of Charlotte.]