Sergeant Major Deuce: The 4-legged American Hero

Not all superheroes wear capes. Heroes come in all shapes, sizes and types, and many of those heroes masquerade as regular souls living everyday lives. They don’t draw attention walking down the street. They are Veterans, doctors, nurses, law enforcement officers, and so many others — even dogs. In this particular case, Sergeant Major Deuce, a Chocolate Lab, stands in a class all in his own.

Most people are familiar with the service dogs that are used overseas to help locate I.E.D’s (improvised explosive devices/bombs) and narcotics, however; those situations are not the only ones in which our four-legged heroes are utilized. Deuce is a facility K-9, meaning he is trained to help and assist in the rehabilitation of injured Veterans in a hospital setting.

Deuce worked at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center for ten years. Over that time, Deuce had direct contact with thousands of injured Veterans. Deuce worked hand-in-paw with his dad, Harvey Naranjo, an occupational therapy assistant. Harvey is known to be a “hard-ass” when it comes to therapy, and Deuce is no slouch either. For example, Harvey would make Veterans climb the climbing wall three times in a row, then Deuce would play tug-of-war with the Veterans (helping them to gain core strength and helping with balance). Let me tell you from personal experience, after being physically exhausted from climbing, Deuce would push you to your limits. Harvey and Deuce worked as a team, training America’s elite soldiers, getting them back into tip-top shape. Regardless of how innocent and sweet Deuce may look, don’t let that fool you — he’s a badass too.

Deuce’s work didn’t stop at tug-of-war therapy. Not even close. He was also used to train and assess Veterans who were expecting to receive a service dog. Since the process of getting approved for a service dog can take months, Harvey and Deuce would work with that Veteran to safely teach him or her proper techniques and commands until their dog arrived. Deuce would also assist many Veterans through races, most notably the Achilles Hopes and Possibilities run through Central Park in New York City. For many Veterans, this event was their first time out of the hospital and their first time walking a long distance. Deuce would walk by their side assisting them through the grueling hills of Central Park, being there to support them mentally and physically.

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Deuce, a therapy dog at Walter Reed, and his owner Harvey Naranjo greet Sgt. 1st Class Andrew R. Allman, one of the patients at the occupational therapy gym. Deuce helps with patients’ therapies, but his main job is to make them feel better. Photo by Elizabeth M. Lorge .

As you can see, Deuce is not your ordinary dog. He even knows some pretty cool commands. Deuce knows how to Salute, Stand at Attention and Stand at Ease, all of which are commonly used commands across all branches of the military.

Deuce and Harvey have a special place in my heart. Not only are they great friends to me, but they helped me heal mentally and physically too. Harvey was the one who suggested that I get a dog to help control my anxiety and emotional issues. I was unsure at first, since I never owned a dog growing up, but the experiences I had with Deuce during therapy made me reconsider. Deuce and Harvey attended an adoption event at the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. where they met a little brown pitbull (now named) Nike. After a quick interaction with her, Harvey fell in love with Nike and reached out to me about meeting her. The following weekend, Harvey and I went to visit Nike at the Washington D.C. Humane Society. I really don’t believe in “love at first sight,” but something like that happened. The next day, I adopted Nike and I’ve been head over heels for her ever since.

The first dog that Nike ever made friends with outside of the animal shelter was Deuce. He quickly put her in her place, as he did to me during my first therapy session with him. Over the past two and a half years, Deuce and Nike have become good friends. Even though Nike still has her puppy energy and Deuce has the military barrier of a Drill Sergeant, he still shows love and compassion towards her.

As the years added up, so did the battles for Deuce. Last October, Deuce underwent surgery to have cancer removed from his spine. Deuce seemed to bounce right back after his surgery, just like the Veterans he was accustomed to helping. Unfortunately, within the past month or so Deuce’s health has begun to deteriorate, and the pain from his cancer has returned.

On April 18th, animal photographer Virgil Ocampo honored Deuce with a photo shoot, during which the now white-muzzled hero was showered with a very generous ration of treats and ice cream. Despite being in pain, Deuce sat there like a strong soldier, wagging his tail, smiling with his tongue out for the camera.

Naturally, the shoot became a time to reminisce. Harvey proudly shared stories about all the places Deuce has been — Vail, New York City, Rockaway Beach, etc., about all the Veterans he has helped over his long career, and how full a life he has lived. That moment when Harvey began to share memories really stood out to me. The original purpose of the shoot was to capture Deuce’s spirit and honor him for all of his accomplishments over the years, but I think it was beneficial for Harvey as well. Being able to look at these pictures will be a great way to remember Deuce’s service to this great country.

With heavy a heart, at 12:13 PM on May 3, 2016, Deuce went to doggie heaven to be with all the other heroes. To say Deuce lived a “full” life is an understatement. He impacted so many lives during his time at Walter Reed — Deuce helped Veterans, the Veteran’s family members and many others. As hard as it is to see him go, it was even harder to see him go through the pain he was experiencing. There’s simply no way to properly thank Deuce for all the hard work he did throughout his life. Just saying thank you is not enough. Deuce may be gone, but he will never be forgotten.

 

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THANK YOU DEUCE FOR ALL YOU DID!!

 

***A special Thank You to Virgil Ocampo (Photographer) , Lisa Staruszkiewicz (Photographer Assistant), Sonja Wahi-Miller (Photographer Assistant), and Carly McGee (Editor).***

 

Loop, Swoop and Pull

Loop, Swoop and Pull; a basic process that is taught to children at a very young age. I cannot remember how old I was when I learned how to tie my shoes, but it’s something I do every day. It doesn’t matter if I am wearing boots, dress-shoes, or regular shoes, I still have to tie them. For five months, my right foot was bulging with surgical pins, wound dressings and skin grafts. So wearing a shoe on my right foot was impossible, so for those five months I had to do Loop, Swoop and Pull one less time. During those five months, I would crutch around Walter Reed; I crutched to appointments, to physical therapy sessions, to the pharmacy and to the gym. I refused to be pushed around by my mother in a wheelchair, I hated being helpless. Due to complications from having an open-wound and a bone infection, I had to get my right-foot amputated, from below-the-knee down.

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During physical therapy (PT), you go through stages, kind of like a baby; you learn to crawl, then you learn how to walk, and then you finally learn how to run. Everyone progresses through these different stages at different rates, some takes a few weeks and some take a few months, it all depends on what type of injuries you’re suffering. When I first started PT, I felt like a baby; I was doing leg raises with 5 pound weights, stomach crunches and push-ups in order to build my strength back up. At this point, I was still recovering from my amputation, my stitches were closing, my residual limb was shrinking and the doctors were trying to control my pain. I was in this phase for about a month or so, and then the day finally came, the day I got my first leg. I can still remember that day like it was yesterday, it’s a day I’ll never forget. Being able to stand on your own, without crutches, without any assistance is truly a remarkable feeling. I still wasn’t able to walk for long periods of time; I started out only being able to walk for 10 to 15 minutes at a time before I had to take my prosthetic-leg off and rest. At times, I would get very frustrated, but I knew it was all a part of the recovery process.

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First Steps

During the recovery process, you face many setback and challenges, you have to deal with controlling your pain, skin breakdown and all the other medical issues you have going on. For me, I seemed to be able to control my physical pain very well. Within a couple of months, I was able to walk around Walter Reed without stopping and needing a break. My next challenge was learning how to run again, and man, was it challenge. I can remember the first day I got my cheetah leg running leg and tried to run with it for the first time. I should rephrase that, I didn’t run my first day, I could barely stay upright, and I more or less tried prevented myself from further injury. Unlike walking, learning how to run seemed to be much more difficult; being able to find your “sweet spot” with you prosthetic and not falling seemed to be my main concerns. After a couple of weeks, and countless hours working with my PT, I finally felt comfortable enough to run on my own. Let’s backtrack for a second, at this point, I haven’t ran a mile in over a year, I wasn’t in “tip-top” shape, and I was taking medication, so it’s safe to say that my first time running would suck. OH, did it suck, I felt like my chest was going to cave in, I couldn’t breathe, and my body was cramping up. I would run 100-yards and have to take a break, run another 100-yards and take another break, this process happened for a few days. After a week or so of making myself look like a pansy, I finally got the endurance and stamina I needed to run for longer periods of time.

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Before my injury, I really wasn’t into running, I ran because I had to while I was in the Army. I wasn’t a bad runner either, I’ve always been able to run because I grew up playing sports, so running while I was in the Army seemed easy to me. I never had the hopes and dreams of ever running a marathon either, 26.2 miles seemed like an eternity to me and I was not interested. It’s funny how things change, during my recovery and PT sessions, running seemed to be the only thing that made me feel normal, or l made me feel like everyone else again. I felt a great sense of pride when I saw myself doing the things I used to do, like being able to walk or run again. One day, I set a lofty goal, and said that I would run a marathon within the next year. So during the spring and summer months of 2011, I started my training for my first marathon.

While I was training at the MATC one summer day in 2011, I was introduced to two lovely ladies.  Jannet and Genna worked for the Achilles Freedom Team; a non-profit organization that provides Veterans with the opportunity to train and participate in mainstream marathons. They approached me and asked me if I would be interested in running a 5 mile race through Central Park in New York City with the Freedom Team. This seemed like a great idea to me, I needed to test my training and who says “no” to a weekend trip in New York City? “No one does.” After running the Hopes & Possibilities race in NYC, I asked if I could run the Chicago marathon with their team, and they said “yes.” On October 3, 2011, I ran and completed my first marathon, the Chicago marathon. Since then, I have competed in over thirty races, to include the Boston marathon, the New York City marathon, the Disney half-marathon and I plan to run the Chicago marathon again this year.

Running is not just an activity to me or something I do to stay in shape, running allowed me to feel normal and human again. Being able to run again gave me the confidence and courage that I had been lacking. Running gave me the confidence to try and do sports that I never thought I could do again. One of those sports being basketball, I never thought I would be able to play basketball again, but the confidence I gained through running gave me the courage to get up, and try it again. just like walking and running, it was a process, but eventually I got the hang of moving laterally and shooting the basketball again. Many Veterans today turn to sports to aid their recovery, i.e. crossfit, softball, snowboarding etc..to me, I turned to running. Running catapulted my recovery in ways I never would have imagined. I met some amazing people, made countless friends and made memories that I will never forget.  I met the Schmidt family while I ran the disney half-marathon, Joe (aka-Ironman Joe) ran as my guide while we ran through Disney’s parks that humid morning in January. James Devary (aka fireball, da man, if you’re not first you’re last) has guided me through multiple races and we share a camaraderie that only airborne grunts share. These are just a couple of the amazing people that I have met along the way.  My next goal is to get Nike, (my dog) in-shape to run with me. Nike thinks differently though, instead of running, Nike thinks it’s play time and would rather lie in the grass or play fetch.

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“Start by doing what is necessary, then do what’s possible, and suddenly you’re doing the impossible.”

-Saint Francis of Assisi