Veterans Moving Forward

July 2, 2020

As a way to commemorate Memorial Day at the end of the school year, Mercer Middle School teacher Gina Chaszar gave her students the opportunity to write an essay appreciating those who serve in the U.S. military — and the four-legged friends who offer them physical and emotional assistance when they return home.

“My kids would write essays putting themselves in the place of either service dogs and whatever inspired them, or a wounded veteran in need of a service dog,” Chaszar, who teaches sixth- and seventh-graders in Mercer’s Spectrum program for gifted and talented students, told the Times-Mirror.

Chaszar found a willing partner for the contest in Gordon Sumner, the president and CEO of Veterans Moving Forward, a Dulles-based nonprofit that trains and assigns service and emotional-support dogs to American veterans.

“It’s for any veteran who’s dealing with physical or mental challenges, or both,” Sumner said. “And it doesn’t have to be a combat veteran. You could be a veteran that fell off a ladder and is handicapped and needs a service dog.”

After a decades-long history of military service, Sumner — a recipient of the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star Medal and other esteemed decorations — retired from the U.S. Army in 1997 as a colonel select. He was one of the first volunteers at VMF, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary on July 7.

In the spring of 2016, VMF moved into its current facility in an office park at 44225 Mercure Circle in Dulles. The facility welcomed two special guests Wednesday: Charlotte Long, 12, and Ovya Sundaram, 13, who took first and third place in the essay contest, respectively.

Each girl wrote her essay from the perspective of a wounded veteran who is initially reluctant to accept the support of a service dog but eventually comes to appreciate his or her new companion.

“My story was titled ‘Brave,’” Sundaram said. “[The main character is] getting the dog, and they’re embarrassed because they’re pretty strong, and they don’t want to keep the dog at first, but the dog helps save their life.”

Long, whose first-place essay, “Butter,” earned her a $75 prize, drew from her experience of having to use a wheelchair after she broke her leg in the third grade.

“The character does not like to ask for help very much, and I don’t like to ask for help either, so I kind of know what that felt like,” said Long, who also loves writing fiction outside the classroom and said she is roughly 500 pages into a novel.

“[The essays] are far beyond what you would expect of a 12- or 13-year-old writing level,” Chaszar said.

During their visit, Long, Sundaram and their parents enjoyed petting and playing with several of the dogs in training. According to Sumner, most VMF dogs are named after veterans killed in combat, like Ashley, a chocolate Lab whose namesake, First Lt. Ashley White, died in combat in Afghanistan nine years ago.

VMF staffers are thorough when choosing veteran-dog partnerships, performing home visits and making sure applicants will be able to adequately care for their new helpers. Eventually, a HIPAA-certified board decides who each dog’s new owner will be.

“We get very nosy,” Sumner said. “We want to know everything about you, we want to know your finances, we want to know your home. It’s not going to be any good to give you a dog and you can’t support it.”

In its decade of operation, VMF has provided service and emotional-support dogs to veterans living all around the country, including California, New England and the Midwest. Gil, a two-year-old black Lab, will be placed in New Hampshire in a couple months and will be the first dog to graduate from VMF this year.

Though VMF usually bolsters its operations through frequent fundraisers, the COVID-19 health crisis has forced staff to cancel around 30 fundraising events that had been scheduled through this month.

“The only fundraising we’ve gotten is people who have been making contributions,” Sumner said. “I can’t not feed these dogs. I can’t not house them. These are like kids, so I’ve got to have money to keep the lights on and keep them trained and fed and housed.”

Thankfully, VMF plans to hold its first major fundraiser since the outbreak, a golf tournament at 1757 Golf Club in Dulles, on July 23.

“It’s kind of like TopGolf. There are little bays that they have, so you can come in, pay a $50 donation, then there’ll be food, drinks, prizes,” Sumner said.

Aside from merely keeping the current VMF facility buzzing, Sumner said he hopes to eventually begin a major capital campaign in order to purchase land in western Loudoun, which he believes will be a more appropriate environment for the canines in training.

“This is a business park,” he said of the current premises. “We have no place to run the dogs, we can’t build the obstacle courses that they need, so my dream is to have a capital campaign so we can move the service dog training facility to a more remote location, build it up on acres of land, where they can train and they can also be a dog.”

  • Most Recent News

    Big Dogs Need Owners

    October 9, 2020

    When the shutdown orders took full effect, it became nearly impossible to find a small dog available for adoption as Southlanders sought furry companions. In many Southland shelters, only larger breeds remained available for adoption. Now Los Angeles Animal Service is touting the joys of big dogs while offering discounted adoption fees for larger breeds […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Walkathon

    October 9, 2020

    On Saturday, October 3, hundreds of walkers from across 15 states joined the path to bettering the world for children with autism and their families as part of BluePath Service Dogs’ fourth annual walkathon. The family-friendly fundraiser – this year held virtually – raised more than $120,000 to further BluePath’s mission of providing autism service […]

    Read more

    Service Dog In The Marching Band

    October 9, 2020

    In a year that is anything but normal, the Jones College Maroon Typhoon Marching Band has welcomed its first known service dog member this fall. Laurie, a 3-year-old golden retriever, is baritone saxophone player Sara-Beth McKellar’s service dog. The Vicksburg native was diagnosed with epilepsy as a sophomore in high school after her first seizure. […]

    Read more

    Church Blesses Animals

    October 9, 2020

    St. Mary’s Church of the Immaculate Conception in Port Jervis hosted a special outdoor service last Sunday afternoon to bless the community’s pets, animals and other living creatures. In keeping with current pandemic rules, pet owners wore masks, remained distant, and took part in praying for dogs, cats, turtles, and other pets and animals around […]

    Read more

    Police Welcomes New Canine

    October 9, 2020

    Young Kingston Police service dog Bask may look small, but his handler says his training and energy are proving that he’s up to fill the shoes of his predecessor. “I think he’s going to be a great little dog,” Const. Jeff Dickson said, looking down at his new partner. A partner that, wearing the right […]

    Read more

    Dog Park For Travelers

    October 9, 2020

    St. Petersburg is widely recognized as a dog-friendly city, and St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport is making sure its four-legged visitors and their humans feel welcome by rolling out the artificial turf carpet. With the completion of the airport’s parking and roadway project – part of a series of multi-million dollar improvements at the airport over the […]

    Read more

    Service Dog Helps Firefighters

    October 9, 2020

    Firefighters battling the Archie Creek and Thielsen fires have had some long, exhausting days. But for some, their troubles seemed to melt away once they got back to camp. Why? Meet Ralph Colombo. He hauls oversize loads. And joining Ralph is his service dog, Cowboy – the morale boosting, firefighting puppy. “He just keeps my […]

    Read more

    Pet Therapy Program

    October 9, 2020

    Saturday, October 10 is World Mental Health Day, which this year has a new sense of urgency for many. Covid-19 has taken a mental and emotional toll on healthcare workers across the U.S but there is a program boosting the spirits of doctors and nurses on the frontlines. At UC Irvine Medical Center in Southern […]

    Read more

    A Service Dogs Place

    October 9, 2020

    A new Pineville nonprofit that helps people with disabilities obtain service dogs has made its first match. The Saber Life Foundation was started in March by Danea Key and her husband Joel. They provide people with trained service dogs, paying 51 percent of the cost, with the client paying the other 49 percent. Service dogs […]

    Read more

    Dog Beating Cancer

    October 9, 2020

    A little over a year after a local dog was given only a few months to live after being diagnosed with bone cancer, she is still in remission and will be celebrated her twelfth birthday this month. Cocoa has been with her owner, Bucyrus resident Christie Auck, since she was nine-weeks-old. “On Aug. 18, 2019, […]

    Read more

    More Recent News