This is the time of year when we think about the men and women who have died in service to their country — Memorial Day's heroes who have made the ultimate sacrifice.
But those who are left behind at home are also warriors who sacrifice for our nation. Among them are the Gold Star mothers, fathers and children who grieve immeasurably when they must bury a military son, daughter, husband, wife or parent. By providing these family members with one of our Gold Star Family dogs to comfort and support them, Southeastern Guide Dogs acknowledges and honors the tragic losses suffered by these loved ones.
One of those special people is herself an Army veteran, Gold Star Mother Annette Kirk of Valrico.
Between active duty and the reserves, Annette served seven years in the Army in the 1980s and 1990s. Annette's ex-husband Paul was in the Army, as well, and their son Paul followed in both parents' footsteps. But just before young Paul left for basic training, Paul senior died in a car accident. "My son was a strong kid," Annette remembers. "He pushed through the pain, determined to serve his country."
Then, shortly after deploying to Afghanistan, 23-year-old Army combat medic Pfc. Paul O. Cuzzupe II was killed by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan. Annette Kirk joined the ranks of Gold Star mothers.
This mother's grief was augmented by the further loss of her brother and both parents. Volunteering as state president of American Gold Star Mothers Inc. and the Afghanistan Memorial project has helped Annette cope with many emotional struggles. But she has found that nothing compares to the special powers of a four-legged companion with a mission to heal.
Annette welcomed home a loving, bubbly black Labrador named Bruno — a Southeastern Guide Dogs Gold Star Family dog.
"Bruno has already made a difference," Annette says. In addition to helping her spread awareness of the issues of veteran suicide and prevention and the remarkable contributions of a well-trained dog, Bruno is a personal friend.
"I absolutely adore Bruno," Annette says. "He has done wonders for me. I feel a lot better about myself. I feel happier — I think because he's so happy, he makes me happy. He has such a personality. I'm not a touchy-feely person, but with Bruno I am. I hug him a lot and he's always next to me. I almost see him as a person, not a pet. Almost like a child."
In September 2016, Southeastern Guide Dogs began offering survivors like Annette Gold Star Family dogs at absolutely no cost. We care deeply about the men and women who serve in the U.S. Armed Forces and since 1982 have been pairing those with vision loss and other disabilities with life-changing guide and service dogs. In the same spirit of compassion and caring, we provide these gentle, intuitive companions — calm, people-loving dogs that match a military family's unique needs.
Annette's family is but one example of the magic that a dog like Bruno radiates this Memorial Day and every day. "My son Paul was the one who really wanted children; it's really sad," Annette tells us. "Maybe that's why I'm really bonding with Bruno — this is my way of having a grandchild. I'm spoiling him like a grandbaby."
Titus Herman is CEO of Southeastern Guide Dogs in Palmetto. For information about the Gold Star Family program and how Southeastern Guide Dogs transforms lives by nurturing extraordinary partnerships between dogs and the people who need them, visit guidedogs.org/gold-star-family-dog/.