GULFPORT — To Kathryn Champion, dogs were just pets. They didn't change lives. They couldn't talk to you or cry with you or laugh at the absurdity of life with you.
They certainly couldn't make you forget war.
That's what Champion, 45, of Gulfport believed after 27 years in the Army, including one horrific tour in Iraq. While she was serving as a lieutenant colonel in a civil affairs unit, five soldiers under her command died during that deployment.
After she got home in 2006, life was tough on her. Champion suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder. She was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Then the worst news: A virus she contracted in Iraq was killing her optic nerves.
Champion was going blind.
Which brought her to Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto early last year. Champion was severely depressed. She had withdrawn deeply into herself. Her Army career was finished. She thought a dog would be a nuisance in her disordered life.
"I didn't put much creed into a dog being man's best friend," she said.
In May 2009, Champion was introduced to a golden Labrador retriever mix who loved chasing squirrels and hated anyone touching her tail.
Her name was Angel.
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At first, nothing worked right between Champion and Angel.
Southeastern provides its dogs and new owners with 26 days of training together. It is essential for the visually impaired students to understand the rhythms of their dog's life. Dozens of commands have to be learned.
Most importantly, Champion had to learn to trust her dog.
But Champion was flustered. She couldn't get Angel to do what she wanted. They weren't working as a team. Champion considered quitting. "I felt like a failure," she said.
The moment it all clicked was unexpected. Southeastern took Champion to a Tampa hotel. Champion was told to allow Angel to guide her down some stairs. Champion jokingly told her dog to find her a Starbucks.
They made it down those steps together without a stumble, Champion thinking a trainer was following in case she fell.
At the bottom, the trainer told her, "You did that by yourself."
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The idea of flying made her sick with fear.
Champion's son, Bruce, wanted her to fly to Washington state, where he was stationed with the Army, so the pair could have a last visit before his deployment to Afghanistan.
It was false bravado when Champion got off the phone and looked to Angel and said, "Okay, buddy. We're going to get on that airplane and we're going to go see your brother."
The flight would be Champion's first big trip with Angel, just two weeks after their training ended.
The plane would be claustrophobic. People would stare at her. She might panic. "People don't understand what it's like to be scared all the time," she said.
A friend from Southeastern was allowed to walk on the plane in Tampa with Angel and Champion. But the terrifying moment came when the plane took off and Champion was alone with her dog.
If her heart raced too quickly, she reached down to touch Angel. By increments, Champion relaxed. She missed her connection in Chicago. A flight attendant found Champion in the empty plane. "Is this Seattle?" Champion asked.
Champion made it to Seattle a few hours late. And Angel met her brother.
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Somewhere along the way, Angel became far more than a guide dog to Champion.
Champion started visiting the mall again. Crowds didn't bother her as much. And if she once feared people might stare at the blind woman with the guide dog, she discovered that Angel made people want to speak to her. They always asked about the dog.
Champion traveled with her dog to the Grand Canyon. She stayed at Space Camp in Alabama where both Champion and Angel were strapped into harnesses and lifted into the air to simulate weightlessness.
People laughed when they saw Angel suspended like a canine astronaut, her tail wagging.
Champion and Angel were the definition of inseparable. If Champion got too sick to take Angel for a walk, friends might arrive to take the dog out. But Angel would refuse to leave Champion's side.
At a recent visit to the dentist, the dentist had one request: Could Champion move Angel's head off her lap?
And whenever she got stressed, Champion talked to her dog as if she understood every word. "Angel knows everything about me," she said.
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There is one more thing that Angel did for Champion.
Champion has started raising money for other veterans who need guide dogs. It costs $5,000 for someone to undergo the 26 days of training at Southeastern.
So every chance she gets, Champion speaks to whatever group will have her, asking folks to donate to Southeastern's "Paws for Patriots" program. So far, she has raised $15,000 — enough to train three veterans.
Her goal is to raise $2 million no matter how long it takes.
It's Champion's hope that trained dogs might be provided not just to blind veterans, but also to those with PTSD.
Champion isn't withdrawn anymore. She's once again engaged in life. "Angel has been her ticket back in," said Patsy French, a Southeastern spokeswoman.
Said Champion, "Angel shows me the kindness of humanity."
William R. Levesque can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3432.